Book review: Finding Mecca in America and Crescent Moon Rising take divergent approaches

Two books offer contradictory portraits of Islam in the United States but which one, wonders Rayyan Al-Shawaf, paints a more representative picture of post-9/11 life?

Finding Mecca in America: How Islam is Becoming an American Religion
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Crescent Moon Rising:
The Islamic Transformation of America
Paul L Williams
Prometheus Books

Finding Mecca in America: How Islam is Becoming an American Religion
Mucahit Bilici
University of Chicago Press

Although both these books explore Islam in the United States, Mucahit Bilici's Finding Mecca in America and Paul L Williams's Crescent Moon Rising could not be more different. This is due, in part, to their divergent approaches: academic in the case of Bilici (a sociology professor), and journalistic on the part of Williams (an investigative reporter who has written books such as The Day of Islam, Osama's Revenge, and The Al Qaeda Connection.) The authors also present diametrically opposed arguments, as a glance at their respective books' subtitles indicates. Bilici's Finding Mecca in America explains "How Islam is Becoming an American Religion," while Williams's Crescent Moon Rising depicts "The Islamic Transformation of America."

Both Bilici and Williams delve into phenomena that bear out their respective positions to a degree, with Bilici generally proving more persuasive in his argument. Unfortunately, however, neither pays sufficient heed to realities that contradict their dissimilar portraits of Muslims in the US, a community that numbers anywhere between 2.4 to 7 million people (estimates vary widely), and consists of African Americans, Arabs, South Asians, and others.

For example, Bilici conspicuously ignores religious radicalism and barely touches on extreme social and cultural conservatism among some American Muslims. Williams, meanwhile, spends much time on extremism as well as Muslim public figures unmasked by journalists as less moderate than touted by their admirers, but refrains from offering examples of true moderates and gauging their influence. The presence of such blind spots in both books makes each, in several instances, a welcome corrective to the other, and provides a good reason to read them in tandem.

Finding Mecca in America, the title of Bilici's book - his first - calls to mind the Americanisation of Judaism expressed by Reform Jewish leader Gustavus Poznanski in 1819: "This synagogue is our Temple, this city [Charleston, South Carolina] our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine." In reality, of course, even assimilated Jews, Muslims, and others often continue to retain religious or cultural links to distant holy sites.

Yet assimilation, as Bilici shows, results in a shift in perception, so that "Muslims see things from the point of view (ie, location) of their new homeland, America". Concurrent with this development, Muslims begin to adopt a "perspective identifying Islam with American values". Bilici, who weighs down his book - which he describes as "a study in cultural sociology and social theory" - with needless philosophical and sociological jargon, is at his finest when examining this process of acculturation and assimilation. Admittedly, the author, who conducted most of his field work in Detroit, Michigan, where more than 50 mosques can be found, does not chronicle the experiences of a single community over generations, but he does profile and contrast immigrant, second, and third generation mosque congregations.

Such attention to the ways Muslim communities evolve is absent from Crescent Moon Rising, in which Williams provides a series of snapshots - often backed by statistics - of radical Islam in America. Contextualisation would not diminish the repugnance of the views and acts depicted, but might show whether such phenomena increase or recede among a specific Muslim community over time, and help one determine where to direct efforts to combat extremism.

Such a nuanced approach would conflict with the author's alarmist main intent, however, which is to portray Islam in America in its entirety as a cultural and security threat, and an invincible one at that. (Williams claims that "Islam by 2050 will emerge as the nation's dominant religion". The statistics he provides do not support this projection.) Even when delving into history, as with his factually correct yet manifestly unsympathetic account of the rise of black nationalist Muslim organisations among African Americans, Williams eschews discussion of the official and popular anti-black racism that stoked "the deep-seated rage that burned within the bellies of thousands of African Americans against their native land."

Williams also makes embarrassing mistakes. Aside from misquoting and mixing up quotations from the Quran and Hadith, he claims Egypt's Al-Azhar University teaches "radical Wahhabi doctrine", whereas in fact Al-Azhar and Salafis (Wahhabis) have long been at odds. He overestimates the number of Muslims in Western Europe at 60 million (instead of the 44.1 million in all of Europe estimated by Pew Forum in 2010) and claims that their percentage in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is 40 per cent (instead of 13 per cent, as estimated in a 2010 report on the city by Open Society). Shockingly, he describes US army Muslim chaplain James Yee as being "on the opposite side of the war on terror", despite the fact that all espionage-related charges against Yee were dropped years before this book went to press.

The most powerful feature of Williams's book is its spotlighting of violent Muslim groups that have operated extensively on American soil, and the belated and sometimes ineffective response by security agencies. Examples of such groups include the now-defunct Dar ul-Islam and its offspring, Jamaat ul-Fuqra, which remains active under names such as Muslims of the Americas. Williams also discusses the secretive business/educational/cultural network run by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric with ties to the CIA who now lives in Pennsylvania. His loose network is peaceful but may harbour radical aims for the long term. Finding Mecca in America makes no such forays into the murkier side of Islam in the US. Distressingly, when discussing the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an American civil rights organisation, Bilici does not mention certain prominent members' well-documented extremist statements and ties, or contemplate the distinct possibility that the organisation's links to Saudi Arabia compromise its independence and orientation.

Both books fail to stress that many Muslims are purely nominal, despite statistical findings cited in passing by the authors that point to the existence of large numbers of such people. For Williams, acknowledging that many if not most Muslims in America are irreligious would undermine his attempt to paint a picture of virtually all Muslims as participants in the Islamisation of the country. By mere virtue of their Muslim origin, Iranian Americans, who are overwhelmingly secular and vocally opposed to the Islamic regime in Iran, and the Albanian American mafia, whose criminal enterprises hardly seem motivated by Islam, end up included in the book, often alongside isolationists and even extremists. Occasionally, in discussing a segment of American Muslims who reject assimilation, Williams lets slip an oblique acknowledgement that many Muslims have in fact assimilated. For example, he observes that "[o]f all the Islamic newcomers, the Somalis were the most resistant to assimilation within American culture". But he refrains from pointing to those segments of the Muslim American populace that have taken a different path from the Somalis, restricting himself instead to recognising certain communities' economic achievements.

Meanwhile, the only partial exception to Bilici's focus on observant Muslims is the penultimate chapter's fascinating exploration of American Muslim stand-up comedy. This is unfortunate, as no discussion of American Muslim identity is complete without an account of those Muslims with little adherence to or affinity for Islam, most of whom end up agonising far less than their religious counterparts do over the idea and practice of assimilation. To give Bilici credit, he does venture into somewhat related territory. The author offers an insightful analysis of the way in which Muslim anti-colonial writers conceived "a totalistic understanding of Islam" in opposition to the West, and explains that this approach has steadily lost ground among Muslims in America today, where the notion that religion can be subsumed within a greater whole has made significant strides.

One of the most striking features of both books is a picture of Muslim success in America. Bilici performs the difficult but rewarding job of probing cultural developments and parsing Muslims' discourse to demonstrate the extent of cultural and linguistic Americanisation underway. Williams, meanwhile, offers up statistics regarding Muslim majority communities that show remarkably high levels of education and business ownership among Iranian Americans, significantly above average incomes for Pakistani and Afghan Americans, and a high rate of self-employment on the part of Palestinian Americans. Reading Bilici and Williams on this facet of American Muslim life could reasonably prompt an observer to hazard certain careful but firm judgements. Despite its faults, including sporadic discrimination against Muslim citizens and residents following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US offers Muslims greater opportunities for both economic success and social assimilation than do many European countries, where ethnic and class biases remain strong. Just as important, the freedoms afforded by the US make it a far more hospitable environment for innovators, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists when compared to most predominantly Muslim countries.

This is where the subject of Islam's legal standing assumes importance. For even after the Arab Spring - and ironically perhaps more so, what with the rise of Islamist movements - various social, political, and even economic aspects of Sharia, which is held up by many as a sound basis for legislation, militate against the creation of free and dynamic societies in newly democratic Muslim majority countries. Thus, any appreciation of America as the homeland of millions of Muslims - Bilici at one point quotes Barack Obama's memorable statement that "the US could be seen as a Muslim country too" - must take into account the salient fact that Sharia plays no public role. Perhaps this is America's significance to modern Islam: it is a country that is largely non-Muslim but in which Muslims are equal to others, a country that is partly Muslim but not Islamic.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.