The clash of civilizations affects not just "Islam's bloody borders," in Samuel Huntington's phrase, but also the agonized relations between Muslim immigrants and their Western hosts. Politics forms only one dimension of this conflict. Often more important is sex (e.g., homosexuality, equality between men and women, the portrayal of sex in the media). This is hardly surprising when we consider that each of the two civilizations in conflict is in its own way obsessed with sex-one eager to express it, the other to suppress it.
But these generalizations can be extenuated by others. The West and Islam are each internally divided, which is why the 9/11 Commission Report spoke of the "clash within Islam," meaning the conflict between moderates and radicals. The louder, bloodier clash today is between Sunni and Shia, threatening to spill from Iraq and Lebanon into neighboring states. However, it is not only Islamic civilization that is split. We have our red/blue divisions, which are every bit as deep in Europe as they are in America. The divisions can also be cross-civilizational: as the noted scholar Olivier Roy argues in Globalized Islam (2004), radical Islam is a reaction to globalization, following in the footsteps of fascism and Communism, and again appealing to those on the margins, the alienated Muslim immigrant or his offspring or transnational radicals like Mohammed Atta. Still, is radical Islam really conceivable without the "Muslim awakening" in the Arab and south Asian world?
These battling abstractions suggest that modern Islam's complexity may be better captured through the stories of individual Muslims. That is the method wisely chosen by former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Barrett in his American Islam, a most welcome volume based on on-the-spot, in-depth reporting over time. We lack discerning and balanced accounts of American-or indeed of Western-Muslims at a time when critics have leapt to conclusions on the basis of out-of-date facts and fears. The result is that Islam, Islamism and jihadism get viewed through an imported, and narrow, left-right lens. Barrett provides, instead, thoughtful and frank individual portraits drawing on multiple sources.
He often describes Muslims who don't fit the profile: for example, a Lebanese Shiite publisher who promotes Americanization but at the same time cheers Hezbollah and Arafat and discourages cooperation with the FBI; and a black Brooklyn imam, radicalized by the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and who preaches both bootstrap responsibility and paranoid politics. The imam regards himself as a likely target of a government conspiracy, but offers court testimony helping a terrorist prosecution. Barrett also probes the government prosecution of Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho graduate student charged in February 2003 with providing "material support" to terrorists by running Arabic-language websites that praised suicide bombings.
Barrett takes us inside a mosque near the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown where (as on other Western campuses) a civilizational war rages, in this case over a few women's complaints of segregation during religious services. America's Muslims often cluster around universities because until recently students provided the bulk of Muslim immigrants. As a result, Muslims in the United States, unlike in Western Europe, are well educated, with nearly double the proportion of college graduates found in the non-Muslim population and a per capita income much higher than the American average. However, the sexual politics of many American Muslim mosques and student groups are more reactionary than the typical customs of the Middle East, or even the instructions of the Koran. In the Middle East, women are separated at prayer time and consigned to the back rows. Yet in many American mosques, as in Morgantown, and especially among those blessed by Saudi dispensations, women are segregated, allowed to enter only through a separate entrance and to pray in a room screened off not only from the men but also from sight of the imam leading the service. Sex thus shapes one of Barrett's most vivid stories, that of a young second generation Muslim woman whose revolutionary demand is that women enter by the main door and sit apart, separate but equal.
As it happens, I was reading that chapter before meeting recently with an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader in London. When I told him the Morgantown story, his instantaneous response was: "The women are right; the men are wrong." But concerning the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim militancy in general, Barrett's reporting loses its fine grain. He repeatedly lumps modern Salafists (who would return to the utopia that Mohammed and his followers supposedly built) together with the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's largest and most influential Islamist group, whose history he garbles. Barrett misidentifies of the "Blind Sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, who inspired the first World Trade Center bombing, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rahman belonged to Gamaa Islamiyya, a student movement-turned radical organization that drew most of its followers from Upper Egypt; the Muslim Brotherhood drew its strength from Lower Egypt, especially Cairo and Alexandria. Jihadists like Rahman loathe the Muslim Brotherhood because its members vote, support democracy, and reject jihad except in response to occupation. Even on this last issue, there is variety within this heterogeneous organization: its Iraq chapter can be found in the American-sponsored parliament, where the Muslim Brothers are a target for jihadists.
Unlike his other profiles which are richly and variously sourced, Barrett's coverage of the Brotherhood relies on the uncorroborated account of one clearly disgruntled former member. Though elements of the story seem plausible, such as the Brotherhood's trolling Muslim student groups for what Barrett calls "hardcore" candidates, he produces only one other source from the site (Knoxville, Tennessee). We never hear from other members of what he portrays, in very broad strokes, as an extremist cell. This is the book's last and shortest chapter-Barrett may have felt constrained to find a radical, but radical American Muslims are not easy to produce. Barrett does not help us understand whether radicalism arises from what he calls "the first generation" (though the individuals he cites are usually students and visitors, not settled migrants) or the second generation, as in Europe and in other accounts of rising American Muslim alienation.
In general, however, Barrett does manage to capture the nuances of his subject matter. His black imam, Siraj Wahhaj, cooperates willingly with U.S. counter-terrorism authorities, even though he believes his sweeping denunciations of U.S. foreign policy invite his assassination by the same dark government forces who (he insists) murdered Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Wahaj allows the blind sheik to preach in his mosque, but interrupts when Rahman calls on the Brooklyn congregation, composed of criminals the imam has reformed, to rob for radical Islam. Barrett is persuasive when he attributes the imam's paranoid politics not to Islam but to the conspiracy theories widespread among black Americans.
His most sympathetic portrait is of UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who leads a movement of progressive Muslims. The man and his movement clearly endeared themselves to Barrett. He spends a lot of ink on what appears a marginal, if adorable, group—praising El Fadl's remarkable willingness to call Muslims and even Islam to account for the many extremists and the disproportionately high number of terrorists among them. Unlike many other moderates, El Fadl does not "set off any comment he made about al Qaeda against a criticism of Israel or the Patriot Act." Barrett laments the "circular reasoning" of the mainstream Muslims who argue that since Islam prohibits terrorism, the 9/11 hijackers "weren't Muslims." El Fadl asks himself tough questions: "Do the bin Ladens of the Muslim world actually find justification for the ugliness that they perpetuate in any interpretative tradition in Islam? Does this level of intolerance and criminality find support, regardless of how flimsy or absurd, in some of the traditional interpretations?" His unvarnished reply: "unfortunately, the answer must be yes."
Yet his forthrightness is quickly followed by the tired canard, prevalent now in Muslim circles, that Exodus encouraged the Hebrews to slaughter their enemies and to destroy cities that reverted to paganism. To his credit, however, El Fadl explains why injunctions were heeded more often by Muslims than by Jews or Christians. Jihadism did not spring fully formed from the head of bin Laden, but resulted from "long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics" that incubated a dogmatic Puritanism, in which the end justifies any means. Such frank admissions earned El Fadl anonymous phone and email death threats, and ominous vehicles loitering around his house. During this wave of intimidation, it was a rabbi who offered refuge, not "moderate Muslims."
Nonetheless, El Fadl and Barrett are right to note that such fanaticism hardly represents most American Muslims today. That leaves open the question why the American Islam of which Barrett approves, such as El Fadl's Progressives. Muslims, and the Sufi Naqshbandi movement led by the charismatic Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, to which Barrett devotes another chapter, is so thin on the ground. All the more reason, perhaps, to reconsider some of those hastily classified as extremist, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Barrett never dodges large political questions, even as he presents us with a layered tableau from which no easy answers protrude. His own conclusions are fair and persuasive. In the case of the Muslim student at the University of Idaho who was tried under the Patriot Act for designing websites with links to Islamic terrorist groups, Barrett finds the ambivalent trial outcome of a not guilty verdict combined with deportation on immigration charges "a species of rough justice not often seen in troubled times." There is a happier species of rough justice in times where we rarely encounter studies as keen, balanced and thoughtful as Mr. Barrett's.