25 year-old Asma Gull Hasan sets herself a daunting threefold task in American Muslims. Her book confronts and questions the dominant media image of Muslims as "fundamentalist" terrorists and/or women oppressors while it seeks to educate non-Muslims on Islamic principles and the Islamic way of life and explores the problems which face Muslims in relation to their integration into American society. She rises to this challenge, and, for the most part, acquits herself well.
A first generation American Muslim, born to Pakistani immigrant parents in Chicago and brought up in Colorado, Hasan is the product of multiple identities–religious, ethnic and cultural. She is fully aware of the complexity of this multi-stranded background and of the difficulties it raises in terms of her effort to arrive at an understanding of her own identity as an American citizen and a Muslim. Her personal complexity is not unusual in the American Muslim community as a whole. There are six to nine million Muslims in the USA – and they run the full gamut of ethnic origins including, for example, African-American, South Asian, Arab, Palestinian, and East European (Bosnian). According to Hasan, the greatest challenges which face Muslims in becoming a respected and influential group within American society are the ethnic and cultural divides among themselves.
Despite this cultural and ethnic diversity, the non-Muslim media persist in viewing Muslims as a homogenous group, associating them with the militancy of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam(Hasan devotes a chapter to disassociating herself and other mainstream American Muslims from the Farrakhan’ group) or with terrorism. The solution, for Hasan, is for American Muslims to emphasize what they hold in common – belief in the Five Pillars of Islam and the Qu’ran – and to forge a communal identity as productive American citizens who are united by a common religious identity.
Because she has so many negative stereotypes to challenge, Hasan can sometimes sound defensive and over-compensating. She has to counter a public perception of Muslims as anti-American, as against American values, and as radical, extreme and "fundamentalist." She cites theinitial media reporting around the Oklahoma bombing,which saw the attack as bearing the hallmarks of an Islamic terrorist attack, as a cogent example. Here, the media’s scapegoating of Muslims, the enemy "du jour," had very real consequences for Hasan’s family, who received threatening mail, despite being respected members of their community.
Hasan also analyses representation in popular movies like Steven Seagal’s Executive Decision or the hideously racist Not Without My Daughter which posits that a reasonable, loving American Muslim husband is transformed into a patriarchal, abusive lunatic immediately upon landing on Iranian soil.
Because she isrehabilitating the image of American Muslims for an American audience, Hasan emphasizes an equation between a "good Muslim" and a "good American." What is slightly unsettling, however, is the book’s naive acceptance of "good American" values. Hasan’s primary focus is to present Muslims as "good Americans" – Americans who subscribe to an all-American value system of democracy, family values and self-advancement through hard work. Hasan asks her American readership to imagine an office block in New York – peopled with consultants, a travel agent, a hotel manager, a concert promoter, and a CEO attempting to buy toothpaste in a 7-11 store. She asks the reader to imagine that all of these people could be Muslim. And, indeed, there can be no doubt, that American Muslims are probably represented in all of thesecategories. But Hasan is so caught up in her middle class American definitions of success that she doesn’t mention that the clerk behind the counter in the 7-11 store could be Muslim, or that low paid industrial and service workers could be Muslim, too.
However, this is a minor quibble. Hasan’s purpose is to make her non-Muslim American readership realize that Muslims are represented in all strata of American society. Faced with such simplistic generalizations and stereotypes of Muslims in the media, it is probably necessary, if somewhat ironic, for her to counter these with somewhat generalized and received notions of what stands for success in America.
Hasan also tackles the issue of the position of women in Islam, primarily through a discussion of the Islamic dress worn by many Muslim women. This dress is for many non-Muslims the veritable badge of Islam. The controversial debates in this area encompass very well the threefold purpose of Hasan’s book – she can counter the generalized public perception that Muslim women are universally oppressed, she can educate non-Muslims on the rights that Islam grants women, and she can put forward her own arguments for a less gender-segregated Islam in America. The basic thrust of her argument is that the variations of Islamic dress for women, and the differing levels of sequestering and segregation of women throughout the Islamic world, are a product of different cultures rather than directly linked to Islamic beliefs. The requirement for women to be covered from head to toe is an interpretation of the Qu’ran by cultures that are inherently patriarchal, Hasan argues. She extends her own arguments for an Islam that can integrate with American culture into this area. The recognition of gender equality in American culture means that Muslim women can apply these cultural principles to their religious beliefs. Thus, in America, the wearing of the hijab can become a matter of personal choice rather than a cultural imperative.
Rather disturbingly, however, Hasan also cites as a benefit of not wearing Islamic dress in America, that women do not draw attention to themselves, and can thus avoid the discrimination that women in Islamic dress often suffer. To make oneself invisible is a dubious way to avoid discrimination. At no other place in the book, does Hasan advocate that Muslims integrate themselves by becoming invisible. What she does argue for is integration – an integration that will allow American Muslims to unite across their cultural and ethnic diversity, to function as influential citizens in American society without losing their religious identity, and to create a new identity for themselves as American Muslims by uniting and by discarding cultural artifacts that are not appropriate in America. She argues for this last element passionately in her discussion on the taboos surrounding dating and pre-marital sex in American Islam. She explains that the near impossibility of young Muslim men and women meeting each other due to segregation of the sexes at Muslim social functions and the ban on dating, will lead to severe problems in relation to marriage and the growth of the community, in a society which is culturally indisposed to arranged marriages. The emphasis on marriage at an early age conflicts with the desire of young American Muslim women (like Hasan herself) to have a career. Hasan does not have a solution here – instead she sets out a number of options, as she also does in her chapter which posits a Reform Islam more suited to American society. In the final analysis, she is open to any option that ensures that what she perceives to be Islam’s pure core principles be preserved.
American Muslims is an engaging book – lucid, honest, and readable. Above all, any work that can help counter a mainstream media whose coverage of Islam primarily focuses on the latest human rights abuses by the Taliban, is hugely important. This function of Hasan’s book reaches beyond America–it’s not only Americans who need to be educated about Islam.
– Anne Sheridan