American Muslims, in All Their Complexity

Article excerpt

AMERICAN MUSLIMS, IN ALL THEIR COMPLEXITY

Adapted from American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett. Published on Jan. 2, 2007, byFa?rar, Straus and ' Giroux. Copyright © 2007

A VISITOR TO THE HOME OF MUSTAFA AND Sadaf Saied is promptly recruited by young daughters Zaineb, Sameeha, and Mariam, to read a colorful Disney book about the Little Mermaid. The children, who attend public school in their hometown of Orlando, FIa., wear jazzy American clothes. Sadaf, the girls' mother, is in the kitchen preparing an aromatic feast of broiled salmon and chicken curry. She wears the Islamic hijab, or female head covering, and a concealing ankle-length turquoise wrap. Her husband, Mustafa, holds forth in the living room on how his knowledge of sports helps break the ice with customers of the family engineering business. He's dressed in denim jeans and a University of Tennessee football jersey.

Mustafa and Sadaf, who are in their early thirties, seem at ease as Americans, without having cut themselves off from their Muslim faith. He came to the United States from India in 1990 to attend college and then decided to stay. She is the American-born child of Pakistani immigrants. The couple has decorated their living room wall with a large, framed rendition of Quranic verse in ornate Arabic calligraphy. Sadaf prays five times a day; her husband, less often. He takes the children trick-or-treating on Halloween, and they join school friends in celebrating Christmas. On Sundays, the girls attend Islamic religious classes, but Mustafa has declared that the minute he hears anything about "infidels," he will keep them home. "I will stop it, cold turkey," he says. "I just want them to have a normal American life."

What, for Muslims, is a normal American life? That's a question many Muslims in this country are seeking to answer. Given the times, it's something that all thoughtful Americans ought to ponder. I had the question in mind when I set out after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to learn about Muslim life in the U.S. My interviews took me from university campuses to maximum-security prisons, from elite corporate offices in midtown Manhattan to the fruit groves of northern California. The stories I gathered are contained in my new book, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion.

One of my central findings is that even after 9/11, assimilation remains a major theme in the lives of most American Muslims. Surveys show that as a group, they are more prosperous and better educated than other Americans. Increasingly, they are involved in local and national politics. Given a chance to explain why they have come here, immigrant Muslims typically stress economic and educational opportunity. In many ways, Muslims are a case study of American society's ability to integrate immigrants.

But there are sub-themes to the tale that are less reassuring. …