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American Muslims: the new generation
by Saima Alvi
07 July 2002 13:32 UTC
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Book Review: American Muslims by Bina Shah

American Muslims: the new generation 
By Asma Gull Hasan 
ISBN 0826412793 
200pp. Hardback $19.95 

Asma Gull Hasan is a young American woman of Pakistani
origin who majored in religious studies at Wellesley
College. The work for her thesis provides the basis
for her book American Muslims: the new generation,
which takes a new look at what it means to be a Muslim
in the United States today. Part educational essay,
part academic research, and part personal account,
Hasan dissects some of the key issues that face
Muslims as they work to redefine their religion in a
country that is not, by nature, Islamic. 

Hasan proposes that because Muslim immigrants and
converts are free of the cultural practices and
impositions of other Muslim societies, they can create
a purer form of Islam, closer to the type of Islam
that was originally founded in the seventh century.
But at the same time they are able to make use of the
greater personal freedoms and advanced technology of
America to propagate, educate, and strengthen the
Muslim community in a way never seen before. 

Hasan takes it as her personal mission (jihad) to
inform non-Muslim Americans about the true nature of
Islam, a struggle, she says, which is probably the
most important issue facing American Muslims today. In
describing her motivation for writing this book, she
says, "My hope is that thoughtful Americans are
willing to open their minds and learn about Islam, and
Islam in America. American Muslims combine the best of
Islamic values and culture with America's respect for
individualism and an open society. The result is a
racially diverse group of people...who are committed
to certain core beliefs and are working to improve the
communities in which they live." 

Hasan takes her readers through a series of chapters
on topics ranging from the practices and beliefs of
Muslims, to the status of women in Islam, to the
political position of the American Muslims. She
intersperses historical facts and details with
interviews of important Muslim figures in America, or
supports many of her points with anecdotes from her
interaction with friends, family, and colleagues, both
Muslim and non-Muslim. The tone and style of the book
is more conversational than stuffily academic, with
chapter headings such as: "Jesus and Jihad", "Movie
Muslims: myth versus reality", and "Sizzling sex...and
bacon" designed to show that indeed Muslims can have a
sense of humour when considering their position in
American society. 

The most interesting chapters are the ones that
discuss the history of Islam in America; Hasan
provides historical material that proves the first
Muslims came to the United States in the seventeen
hundreds, as slaves brought from the African
continent. She also traces the growth of Islam within
the African American community in the 1960s, providing
a fascinating background on the Nation of Islam and
how its leader, Malcolm X, converted to Sunni Islam.
She writes about Louis Farrakhan, the current head of
the NOI, and discusses the movement's pros and cons,
making suggestions for how the movement can make the
transition from cult to mainstream Islam, earning more
respect for itself than it currently commands. 

Equally interesting but more controversial are the
chapters on women's rights in Islam. She outlines the
work of several important women scholars who are
reinterpreting the Quran from a feminist standpoint,
including Professor Riffat Hassan. Hasan herself puts
forth the view that the hijab is necessary only in
spirit, not as an actual physical veil that needs to
be worn by women, and states that she is tired of
women having to bear the responsibility for men's self
control. In an aside called "Hijab and the single
girl", she points out what she and many American
Muslim women see as a major bone of contention:
"Instead of focusing on real problems and on Islam,
American Muslims end up worrying about what a woman
should wear." 

She also states that she believes Muslim women and men
should be able to pray together in the mosque instead
of the women being shunted off into smaller, poorly
equipped rooms that double as day care centres for
children who are running around and hitting each other
in the middle of the khutba. And she talks about the
need for young Muslim men and women to be able to meet
each other in order to develop relationships that will
eventually lead to marriage, rather than the strict
segregation of the sexes that more conservative
Muslims advocate in America. This is incredibly
important, Hasan says, because in a society where
Muslims can meet people of other religions more
easily, Muslim males are more likely to end up
marrying non-believers, causing a shortage of spouses
for Muslim women and most especially white or black
female converts to Islam. 

The book deals especially well with the stereotypes
and myths that Muslims face in America, coming from
Hollywood movies, biased news reports, and propaganda
against the Muslim world. Hasan uses many examples
from her own life to show how she deals with the
conflicts that arise from her practice of her
religion, including an inadvertently funny scene in a
restaurant where a waitress pretends not to understand
Hasan's request to omit bacon from her breakfast
order. However, sometimes the family anecdotes become
a little jarring, especially considering that Hasan is
asking the readers of her book to look beyond
stereotypes of Muslims, and then asks readers to
accept stories of her family life as the typical
American Muslim experience. 

Hasan tends to display a certain breeziness when
talking about difficult issues of Islam, displaying a
certain lack of understanding on the part of the
author of the more delicate nuances of Islam.. For
example, she deals with the differences between Sunni
and Shi'ite Islam by glossing them over in an
unsatisfying way: "I would say that nowadays you won't
see a Shi'ite beating himself or herself black and
blue (during Muharram), but it does show how on some
issues, Shi'ites feel more strongly than Sunnis do". 

Also, she asserts that American Islam is a "purer"
kind of Islam and therefore that American Muslims are
"better Muslims," a statement that sounds at least as
defensive as it is opinionated. But in trying to make
the point that Islam in America is free from Muslim
countries' cultural baggage, she has inserted the
American cultural bias that anything in America, even
Islam, is better than its counterpart in other parts
of the world. She also ignores the fact that many
Muslim immigrants have brought their old cultural
concepts to the new country and continue to practice
them intertwined with the types of Islam prevalent in
America today. 

On the whole, the book is an interesting read,
providing information that is vital to a better
understanding of this six million-strong group of
people who are so badly viewed by their fellow
Americans. It provides an alternative voice, an
insight that is non-violent and asks for understanding
and acceptance. It is vital that that voice, and
others like it, are not drowned out by the louder
shouts for attention that have dominated recent world
events in the United States, in order to balance the
hysteria that is much more tempting, and easier to
hear, for Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. 


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