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Review of "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam" by


16 February 2015

Akbar Ahmed is an anthropologist by academic background, having received a PhD in Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has had a distinguished career in the Pakistan Civil Service, including being High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

This book is a fascinating anthropological study of Muslims in America. It was published in 2010 and I bought it shortly afterwards, but only read it recently.

Overview of the book

An overall impression of the book can be gained by looking at the table of contents.

Table of contents

  1. Muslim Odyssey

Part I: American Identity

  1. Defining American Identity
  2. Searching for American Identity

Part II: Islam in America

  1. African Americans as First Muslims
  2. Immigrant Muslims: Living the American Dream/American Nightmare
  3. Muslim Converts: Shame and Honor in a Time of Excess

Part III: Adjusting and Adapting

  1. Jews and Muslims: Bridging a Great Divide
  2. Mormons and Muslims: Getting to Know You
  3. The Importance of Being America

Appendix: Personal Reflections on the Fieldwork

Without attempting to summarise the 475 pages of text, in the sections below I have dipped into the book to provide a flavour of the author’s writing style and some of his key messages.

Muslim Odyssey

The author begins by pointing out the long-standing connections between Islam and the USA. “Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran, with which he taught himself Arabic, and hosted the first presidential iftaar. [The meal at the end of a day of fasting during Ramadan.] The Founding Fathers acknowledged Islam with cordiality.”

Repeatedly during the book the author draws inspiration from the 19th-century work of Alexis de Tocqueville “Democracy in America”.

“For some early insights, I turned to de Tocqueville and was immediately struck by his remarks about American hypersensitivity to perceived criticism:

‘There is nothing more annoying in the habits of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner would indeed consent to praise much in their country; but he would want to be permitted to blame something, and this he is absolutely refused. America is therefore a country of freedom where, in order not to wound anyone, the foreigner must not speak freely either of particular persons, or of the state, or of the governed, or of those who govern, or of public undertakings, or of private undertakings; or, finally, of anything one encounters except perhaps the climate and the soil; and still, one finds Americans ready to defend both as if they had helped to form them.’

And there I was, about to deal with the most sensitive of subjects for Americans: race, religion, and politics. Any remarks touching on these subjects, especially before television cameras, have the potential to be blown out of proportion or to destroy a career under the gaze of the entire American public.”

The author explains that the amount of fieldwork undertaken makes this the best documented study of Muslims in America to date.

“Our team spent a year on the background work for the project and started in September 2008 about nine months in the field. We visited over 75 cities and over 100 of the estimated 1,200 mosques, some of which are little more than a room or two. Following the anthropological techniques just mentioned, we endeavoured to engage in participant observation to the extent possible.

Our work had several outcomes besides this book. By filming our interviews and anything that caught our interest in the context of the project, we collected valuable film material. With the help of my son, Babar Ahmed, a professional filmmaker, we produced the documentary Journey into America in time for the Islamic Film Festival organised by the Islamic Society of North America in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2009. … We also maintained a popular blog, For more information on the project, see the Berkley Center's Knowledge Resources page ‘Understanding Islam in America and around the World’ at [The Berkley Centre has since restructured its website so that specific page does not seem to exist. However the website still contains a significant amount of material about Islam.]”

Altogether, we gathered about 2,000 questionnaires from people of all ages, races, religions, and classes across the country. The questionnaires were designed with two objectives in mind: to capture the views and social circumstances of a particular individual at a particular time in his or her life, and to penetrate that subject’s personality. We presented open-ended questions and included ample space for the interviewee’s responses. Many people complained about the time it took to answer the questions and the level of difficulty it posed, but this approach produced considerable insight into and details about the community that no multiple-choice question could provide.”

The author mentions recent work by other organisations:

“Two major organisations, with vast budgets and large staffs, have conducted surveys on American Muslims in the past several years. The Pew Research Center Poll, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” released in 2007, polled 1,050 people, while Gallup's “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait” released in 2009 sampled 946. Our sample of 2,000, of which about half were Muslim, was not only larger but also provided a more in-depth survey. Unlike the multiple-choice questions common in other surveys or a telephone call, our open-ended questions conducted in face-to-face sessions gave us better access to people’s emotions and passions.”

Defining American Identity

The author puts forward a model of American identity which runs as a theme throughout the book. Leaving to one side Native American Identity, the author identifies three types of American identity:

  1. Primordial identity
  2. Pluralist identity
  3. Predator identity

“Primordial identity is rooted in the seminal landing at Plymouth and provides the foundation of the other two identities. The aim of the early settlers was to survive and create a Christian society. While some of their actions were the result of excessive religious zeal and fear, others, who still clung to their Christian faith, hope to create a society in which everyone could live according to his or her faith and under the rule of law. The majority of the Founding Fathers in the next century would subscribe to this latter view, which I call pluralist identity.

As primordial identity was taking shape at Plymouth, new trends were already emerging. The more zealous of the settlers argued that the land was given to them by God, and they were to occupy it regardless of who was living there. With time, the colonists grew confident, build new settlements, and began to prey on the weaker natives with impunity. Every kind of depredation was justified in the violence that followed. Immoral acts were committed in the name of protecting the community. Compassion was seen as weakness and compromise as defeat. This aggressive impulse generated an arrogance that did not encourage self-reflection but made it easy to demonise and destroy the enemy. In short, this marked the birth of a predator identity.

Even as the latter two identities emerged to assume distinct traits of their own, they still sought inspiration, genealogical reference, affirmation, and continuity from primordial persons and events such as the Pilgrims and the Plymouth landing. Curiously, Americans of all identities relate to, and even champion, the values of primordial identity. Although pluralist identity derives from primordial identity, it remains diametrically opposed to predator characteristics. Each one is authentic in its own way, but together they form an organic whole that sheds light on American history and character. American society can therefore only be understood as constantly changing, expanding, and adapting to new circumstances within the context of its identities. The central dynamic of American society is the tension between these identities.

Of course, I hasten to add that these identities are little more than an aid to understanding American society. They are what sociologists call “ideal types”; they approximate reality but are not a substitute for it. Ideal types are formed on the basis of aggregates of how people behave. They are rarely watertight and, as already mentioned, often overlap.”

Jews and Muslims: Bridging a Great Divide

The author points out that Jews and Muslims have both faced difficulties in America.

“Both have challenged American identity in profound ways. Jews have had to face long periods of virulent anti-Semitism, which has now faded but not entirely disappeared. Muslims have encountered Islamophobia, especially after 9/11. It is each group’s response to America that is so different. American Jews have confronted American predator identity by forcefully working within the system to reinforce and bring to the fore American pluralist identity. They have been strong advocates of the Founding Fathers and the nation’s founding principles. Muslims, in contrast, have either met predator identity head-on or gone to the other extreme and pretended to be invisible. Neither of these strategies has been beneficial to the Muslim community, which could learn from the Jewish experience, especially because the two religions have so much in common in their theology and culture.

Despite the similarities, the valiant efforts of Jews and Muslims to create harmony between their fates are challenged at every turn by each group’s fear and distrust of the other. To my mind, few things are as urgent as building bridges between Jews and Muslims, and the United States is perhaps the best country in the world for this to happen.”

The author goes on to discuss his collaboration with Judea Pearl, the father of the journalist murdered in Pakistan Daniel Pearl.

Later in the chapter, the author quotes poetry.

“Viewing the gap between Jews and Muslims and the sometimes virulent exchanges between them, I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Weighing both the challenges and the possibilities of friendship, I believe it is imperative for every thoughtful Jew and Muslim to look into his or her heart and changed the nature of the relationship.”

The Importance of Being America

The last subsection of this final chapter has the title “America at a Crossroads”. The author concludes his book with the following.

“The Founding Fathers had no doubts as to how to organise American society. After citing Prophet Muhammad as one of history’s ‘sober inquirers after truth,’ John Adams wrote that ‘the definition of a republic is an “empire of laws and not of men.”’ Opposed to this view of the organising principles of society, Dick Cheney, in a bunker following the 9/11 attacks, declared: “We will probably have to be a country ruled by men rather than laws in this period.” Cheney and the cabal around Bush proceeded to suspend, twist, and override the law. While the pedigree for Adams’s thought traces itself to the roots of Western civilisation nourished by Aristotle, the Bible, Saint Augustine, and Saint Aquinas, that of Cheney, who would subordinate the law to political will, reflects the thinking of men like Machiavelli.

Americans need to make a choice. It is either the Founding Fathers or men like Dick Cheney. It is a clear-cut question of either/or; it cannot be a bit of one and a bit of the other. Either Americans can be true to the Founding Fathers’ concept of America or to the post-9/11 vision of leaders like Bush and Cheney. But the former America cannot coexist with an America that compromises the Constitution and the values of the Founding Fathers. On such clarity does the fate of civilisations rest.

Of course, being a democracy, American citizens can vote for a different kind of America, and Congress can ratify it. The new America could order the faces of Bush and Cheney carved on Mt. Rushmore and those of Washington and Jefferson, two of the Founding Fathers, removed. But that America, in certain aspects – by suspending human rights, compromising civil liberties, and setting aside certain laws – would be closer to regimes in the Muslim world run by ruthless dictators. If that happens, the triumph of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden will be complete and the loss to the world of modern history’s oldest democracy incalculable. That is why America cannot compromise being true to itself. The stakes are too high. It may end up not only losing its own soul but also the chance of saving the planet.

Just as the different American identities need to coalesce and work together, so must the three Muslim models. The mystics with their universal acceptance, the modernists and their vision of living in the world community of nations, and the literalists with their passion for their faith must work as a coordinated whole. These are the Muslims who will provide bold, wise, and caring leadership and stand shoulder to shoulder with other world leaders.

Like infants, we, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are easily distracted by the clamour and colour that surround us. We resolutely ignore the monumental challenges that threaten our very survival – environmental issues, poverty, and ethnic and religious wars. We fail to recognise the importance of America in that it alone has the capacity to mobilise the world to tackle these daunting tasks. But it cannot do so without resolving the question of its identity. The challenge of Islam is to help America find that identity and enable it to fulfil its destiny.”

Concluding comments

As indicated by the above details regarding the fieldwork, this is almost certainly the most in-depth look at Muslims in America there has ever been.

The book contains a wealth of detail and insight, and paints many fascinating pen portraits of American Muslims as well as other Americans.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in how Muslims should live as a minority in a modern democratic and liberal society.



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