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“American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion”

StoryFebruary 05, 2007
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Paul Barrett talks about his new book, “American Islam,” and Asra Nomani recalls how in November 2003 she became the first woman to insist on the right to pray in the male-only main hall of her mosque in West Virginia. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: There are as many as six million Muslims living in the United States. Since the September 11th attacks, some have been investigated and interrogated, removed from airplanes and accused of terrorist plots. A new book gives an intimate and vivid portrait of American Muslims living here in the U.S. It’s called American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, travels from West Virginia to northern Idaho, takes readers into Muslim homes, mosques and private gatherings. The book profiles a varied population of American Muslims with different ideologies, cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities.

The author of the book is Paul Barrett, joining me now. He also directs the investigative reporting team at Businessweek. Before that, he worked as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal for many years. Also with us is journalist, activist and author, Asra Nomani. Her book is called Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. In November 2003, Nomani became the first woman in her mosque in West Virginia to insist on the right to pray in the male-only main hall, and she is also profiled in Paul’s book, American Islam. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

PAUL BARRETT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, let’s start with you. Why did you write this book?

PAUL BARRETT: After 9/11, I realized that in my journalism work I had learned quite a bit about Muslims and Islam overseas, but knew very, very little about Muslims in this country, began to write a series of articles to explore how Muslims live in this country, and that grew into the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the landscape of Muslims here — the number of Muslims, participation in civic politics of this country.

PAUL BARRETT: Right. I think one of the things that Americans don’t realize is how assimilated Muslims already are in this country. As a group, Muslims are more prosperous, as measured by median family income. They are better educated. Fifty-nine percent of Muslims as a group have graduated from college, compared to 28 percent of the population overall. And one of the most striking statistics, in my mind, is that Muslims actually register to vote at a higher rate than Americans do generally. This was one of the things that really surprised me as I began doing the basic research for the book, which is how integrated most Muslims already are into American society.

AMY GOODMAN: Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress in the United States.

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah, I think it’s a historic event and fascinating and maybe even appropriate that the first Muslim elected to Congress is an African-American Muslim, a convert, a homegrown Muslim. And the controversy that was kicked up surrounding his candidacy, I think, showed just how assimilated and sophisticated Mr. Ellison is and how he handled that criticism, and particularly the controversy over his taking his oath on a Qur’an, and then it turned out that he was using a Qur’an that Thomas Jefferson had once owned, which, I think, silenced almost all the criticism of him.

AMY GOODMAN: You profile Asra in this book — Asra Nomani. You were also colleagues at The Wall Street Journal.

PAUL BARRETT: We were once, yes. We met many years ago in Washington, when we were both covering aspects of the federal government for The Wall Street Journal.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you choose her as one of the people in your book?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, Asra’s fight in her hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, for literally a physical place in her mosque took on a symbolic significance to Muslims all around the country, as she presented what I think is a relatively new character, which is to say, a Muslim feminist, someone who was trying to merge Western ideas about how women live in society with the traditions of her religion. And she seemed like an obvious person to use as a vehicle to get at those issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Asra Nomani, why don’t you tell us your story of how you took on the mosque that your father built in Morgantown, West Virginia?

ASRA NOMANI: Well, I was born in India. I’m one of the demographics of new immigrants to America. My father came for his Ph.D. We succeeded in this country. I succeeded rising to the top of the journalism ranks at The Wall Street Journal, but I couldn’t go into my mosque, the mosque that my father had built, because we had imported the traditions of the old world into America. And so, there was no place for women, and I accepted that. You know, I went out into America like a lot of Muslim women do and succeeded and prospered, but in my place of faith I didn’t have a space. And so, after 9/11, it was the death of our colleague, Danny Pearl, from the consequences of this supposed clash, you know, of cultures and religions and ideologies, that I knew that I, as a moderate Muslim, had to try to take a place, and so I knew —

AMY GOODMAN: You were a friend of Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter killed in Pakistan?

ASRA NOMANI: Yeah, we all had met in the Washington, D.C., bureau. And, you know, I am an immigrant child of Muslim parents; Danny was an immigrant child of Jewish parents; both the children of absent-minded professors. And we bonded. You know, we connected because of that higher place that we all tried to meet. And when Danny went missing, and I was in Pakistan, there was no doubt in my mind as a Muslim and as a friend that I had to do whatever I could to try to save him?

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do?

ASRA NOMANI: Worked like crazy 24 hours a day in Karachi for five weeks that Danny was missing. And in those weeks, you know, the FBI and the counterintelligence agents were coming to my house, from which Danny had left for the interview, from which he didn’t return. And there, I learned that the photos that the world saw of Danny with a gun to his head and his hands in chains were dropped off at a Friday prayer in a mosque in Karachi. And it was, to me, sacrilegious that I, as a woman, could not enter that mosque, but these men could use it as a safe house for their diabolical plan that ended up with Danny’s murder. And so, that’s what took me off the fence that we always sit on as journalists so often, because I knew that I had to take a stand, and I knew that our mosque was the institutional place for Muslims. So, as everybody has figured out in the rest of the world, if women don’t speak up, then half the population is silent. So that is how this gender jihad began as part of a peace jihad, struggle for peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Your “gender jihad”?

ASRA NOMANI: Right. And it’s a struggle for women’s rights. It’s part of a larger struggle for tolerance, because if you can’t deal with women in the public space, then you probably can’t deal very well with people of other faiths.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was it like to walk into that mosque that your father built — a professor at West Virginia University — that first time, to walk through the front door?

ASRA NOMANI: Well, you know, Amy, Paul and I, as journalists, as all journalists, you cross into places where you’re not supposed to go, right? I’ve interviewed the Taliban, interviewed President Clinton in the Rose Garden when all the Secret Service were very clear that you weren’t supposed to get near him, but I was scared to death. I was scared to cross these barriers, these traditions that we have imported into this country despite the plurality that is allowed here, because nobody wants to really change that much. And so, I was really scared. I had butterflies in my stomach.

But what Paul really reflects so well in the book is the very deep tradition of critical thinking in our faith that I inherited from my parents. And my father, as a scientist, had an open mind, and he believed in the right of women, and so even though he couldn’t convince the uncles in our mosque to allow women, when his daughter decided she wanted to be in there, he went right in there with me. He was behind my mother and me, as we went in. He took care of my little baby, and when we rose into that main hall and the protests began, I could hear my dad downstairs screaming words like “feminism” and “Islam” and “justice” and “equity,” and I knew my dad had my back in the mosque. And that’s what is really beautiful about Paul’s book, is that he lets the Muslims of our American community speak for themselves, and that is so often forgotten in the discussion about Muslims.

AMY GOODMAN: And Paul also writes in American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, about you being a single mom raising your little boy.


AMY GOODMAN: How has your community accepted that?

ASRA NOMANI: Well, you know, I did a Google search of single mothers in Islam, and I found none in our modern-day history, except then I went back into the history of Islam, and I learned the story of Hagar, who is this forgotten hero in Muslim history who was literally a single mother left by Abraham in Mecca. But, like all religions, we’ve forgotten the pulse of feminine in the faith. And so, I sat there, once I entered into that main hall, and I heard that unchaste women are worthless and I heard that the American feminism model is corrupting our Muslim women, and I knew that many of these arguments were targeted at me. But at the end of the day, all that mattered is that my parents, as Muslims, as people who had been born into families, very traditional, fully veiling as a young woman, my mother, they expressed what, to me, has kept me in the faith: compassion, love and acceptance.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another person, who, Paul, you profile in the book, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion: Osama Siblani, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Dearborn-based weekly bilingual newspaper, The Arab American. He helped found the Arab American Political Action Committee in Dearborn and the Congress of Arab American Organizations. I interviewed him in 2005 and asked him why Arab immigrants first came to Michigan.

OSAMA SIBLANI: The reason that they came in at the turn of the 20th century is — 19th century, beginning of the 20th century — is because of the auto industry. It gathered a lot of Arabs from Lebanon, in particular, and the Syrians at that time — there was not a Lebanon; there was a greater Syria — came and emigrated to the United States, particularly to Detroit to work in the auto industry. And then, later they started going to Dearborn, because Dearborn had the huge Ford Rouge plant. And they’ve situated themselves in Dearborn and around the Dearborn area. And the family bonds, you know, that brought more families — and, you know, brothers brought sisters and brothers and cousins, and they started — now they don’t work in the auto industry. They have their own businesses, and they are professionals. But that’s why they came to Detroit, to the United States, and then to Detroit, in particular, and Dearborn, most particularly.

AMY GOODMAN: Osama Siblani, the publisher, in your series of people that you profile — the imam, the activist, the webmaster, the scholar, the feminist, the mystics and the publisher — Paul Barrett.

PAUL BARRETT: Osama Siblani presents a classic American immigration success story. He came here from Lebanon as a young man to go to college, worked his way through college, got a job as an engineer, a job then in international trade. But after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he felt that the American media didn’t reflect the Arab point of view on that event and others, and out of nowhere founded his own newspaper. And the newspaper has come to be a very important institution in Dearborn, which is the unofficial capital of Arab America. And Siblani, in turn, has become one of the power brokers there. And he illustrates, I think, how people have a combined assimilation, and he’s basically a successful businessman and a political organizer to whom candidates for office, ranging from county sheriff to the president of the United States, have to come and present their case. But at the same time, he is still very wrapped up in causes from the old country. Just this past summer, he was touched by controversy because of favorable statements he made about Hezbollah. And this is a fascinating quick slice of Muslim life in this country: people who have views that aren’t mainstream, but at the same time are very much involved in the mainstream.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Barrett, I want to thank you very much for joining us. His book, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion. And, Asra Nomani, thank you for being with us, as well.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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