Becoming American? A Book Review
Haddad records the development of Arab-American political organizations and scholarly organizations, and it is a record of Arab and Muslim advocacy similar to that of many immigrant groups. How, such groups have always asked, can our voices be heard? How can we be seen as we truly are, and not as our foes would have us portrayed? This has become even more important for Arab and Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11. That event has led to the suspicion of all Muslims, not simply those who are extremists, so that, as Haddad points out, American Muslims in general are much less interested in contributing to a geo-political discussion of why the 9/11 attacks happened than in an attempt to "dissociate and distance themselves from the perpetrators. They have sought to repossess a role in defining their own faith and take it back from the extremists as well as those who thrive on demonizing Islam." (37)
Part of this attempt has been the conscious promotion of a moderate Islam in reaction to the fire-breathing rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists overseas. As Haddad suggests, part of this movement has been wishful suggest-from-outside thinking on the part of American politicians, and part of it has been an organic, grown-from-within development among American Muslims. She summarizes the thinking of Muslim scholars like Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Professor of Law at UCLA, who seeks to affirm that "diversity and difference are the essential teachings of the Qur'an," that "it is the duty of every Muslim to emphasize the tolerance of Islam," and that Islam needs to be differentiated in the minds of the West—and even in the minds of Muslims—from the more radical Saudi Wahhabist interpretations followed by the planners and perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. (61)
Professor Haddad's book is a treasure trove of information. Her summaries of the development of the struggle to form Arab and Muslim identity in American, and her analysis of the prejudices and bars that have or still prohibit their complete inclusion are informed by not only her own reasoning, but by a wealth of scholarship. For those of us coming to these issues with little or no understanding of any ongoing scholarly conversation, Becoming American? not only provides her summary of this conversation, but a voluminous bibliography for further study. I have marked a number of works I hope to read as I learn more about Islam and Islam in America.
Haddad reports that the latest generation of Arab-American activists takes American values very seriously, and they believe that their Arab or Muslim heritage can be a part of making America better, into an America "that is not blinded by special interests but is truly guided by the values it preaches." (95) As I wrote in this column last month, the best recent poll shows just that: American Muslims embrace America and want to be embraced in return as American citizens.
That hasn't happened yet. Haddad quotes, for example, a woman who says "I feel American, I bleed American, my country denies me that identity because I am a Muslim." (96) But surely we can see how patently unfair that seems. Books like Becoming American? that inform general readers about the other side of the question can-and one hopes will-be a part of that process of change.
For more conversation on Becoming American? visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.