Common ground

PAUL M. BARRETT is the author of "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion."

‘DID THEY KNOW you were Jewish?”

I often hear that question when people learn I’ve spent four years researching and writing a book about American Muslims. The answer is yes, and rather than hinder my reporting, disclosure usually helped.

For one thing, the differing reactions I got underscored a central point of my book: American Muslims are anything but monolithic. Shiite Iraqi immigrants who originally supported the U.S. invasion of their homeland see the world differently from Sunnis who passionately opposed the war. White ex-hippie converts to Sufism, Islam’s mystical cousin, have sharply different views from black ex-convict Muslims who embraced the faith behind bars. American Islam is an intricate mixture of devout and secular, moderate and extreme, insular and integrated.

On the topic of Israel, the vast majority of Muslims agree: They don’t like the Jewish state. Long-standing U.S. support for Israel is the single greatest source of frustration to American Muslims. But that doesn’t mean they all hate Jews. Some do, just as some Jews reflexively despise Muslims. With few exceptions, I was welcomed into the mosques and Muslim homes I visited, and when my hosts found out I was Jewish, the tray of tea and honey pastry wasn’t retracted.


It’s true I heard some unsettling notions about American power and who wields it. In Dearborn, Mich., where Arab immigrants began arriving in the 1920s to work in the auto industry, I had a series of long interviews with Imam Husham al-Husainy, a voluble Shiite Iraqi emigre who leads the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center. Initially a backer of the U.S. invasion of his homeland, Al-Husainy had come to believe that the bedlam that has followed had to be intentional -- the result of a conspiracy. He explained to me that even as a Jew, I might not understand the extent of Zionism’s reach.

At the heart of the conspiracy, he told me, is “the Zionist special group” that opposes “the improvement of the relationship between Christians and Muslims.”

“America itself is a victim of a special-interest group that doesn’t want it to have a good relationship with the Muslim world,” Al-Husainy said. “Bush himself is a victim, I believe.”

In Harlem, in New York, Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, an African American, spent many hours tutoring me on the singular history of black Islam, which traces its roots to Muslim slaves from West Africa. An American-born convert, Abdur-Rashid leads the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood and preaches about the need to find common cause with progressive Christians and Jews. He condemns Israel for its actions toward the Palestinians but has civil relations with some New York rabbis, as well as Christian clergy.

Not all of his followers emulate his ecumenical inclination. On several occasions before or after prayer services at the mosque, my religion sparked a discussion about what “really happened” on Sept. 11, 2001. I was challenged about how “those 4,000 Jewish workers knew not to show up that morning at the World Trade Center,” a surprisingly enduring fantasy in some Muslim circles. Those who buttonholed me believe (and I doubt that I changed their minds) that Israel engineered the attack and warned all the Jews to stay home. After all, who benefited the most from American anger toward Arabs and Muslims?

At other stops on my journey, the message was decidedly different. Imad Hamad, a Michigan civil rights organizer of Palestinian descent, admitted that when he married his first wife, a Jewish American woman some years back, her family had taken it better than his. (She and he divorced amicably.) Hamad has been praised by the FBI for serving as an honest broker between U.S. law enforcement and Muslims.


Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, recounted how, in late 2001, his calls for Muslims to take responsibility for reining in extremist rhetoric led to violent threats by fellow Muslims. His voice heavy with emotion, the Egyptian American scholar told me that the only person who volunteered to shelter his family during that dark period was an Orthodox rabbi with whom Abou El Fadl had lectured. “You can make this your home,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who pointed out that the last place menacing Muslims would look for Abou El Fadl would be the living room of a Jewish clergyman.

Elsewhere, I was surprised to find myself looking into what was more a mirror than a window on an alien culture. Zafar Nomani, a retired biochemist in West Virginia, introduced himself to me with a combative series of lectures on America’s many sins in the world. I sensed that a certain tension dissipated when I told him that his family’s obsession with higher education and seeing the next generation outdo the last reminded me of the concerns of my Jewish grandparents. Gradually, Nomani began admitting how much he admired American freedoms of speech and religion, the nation’s (relatively) orderly elections and public services, which usually work.

During my several visits to their home in Morgantown, Nomani and his wife, Sajida, never failed to fill my stomach with spicy ground beef kebabs, chicken tikka masala, heaps of naan and Indian sweets. “Have more, have more,” Sajida insisted. My Jewish grandmothers would have smiled and nodded.