Tuesday, July 31, 2007

BOOKS: Stories of Growing Up Muslim

THE ISLAMIST: Why I Joined Radical Islamin Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. By Ed Husain. Penguin. 288pp. $24.95.

ONLY HALF OF ME: Being a Muslim in Britain. By Rageh Omaar. Viking. 215pp. $26.95.

IT WILL always be difficult for the likes of Osama bin Laden to convince me to hate America.

He might think of the US only in terms of a great military power that once occupied the Arabian peninsula and continues to support the world's only Jewish state against its supposed enemies.

Yet for me, America is a place where I once lived. At age seven, after spending a year overseas, I returned to my old school in the Sydney suburb of East Ryde. There I was teased as the only kid who could combine dark skin, a hard-to-pronounce name and a New Jersey accent. As I moved into my teens, my identity saw a fusion of the profound literature of John Steinbeck and the social activist music of John Cougar Mellencamp. America was much more than just the "Great Satan''.

It also shocks me when I open the newspaper and read the paranoid rants of the likes of Andrew Bolt or Paul Sheehan as they write the latest chapter of what could only be called The Protocols of the Learned Mullahs of Islam. Where I see an enormous variety of cultures, languages and denominations, these poor chaps can only see a bunch of terrorists screaming out "Jerka, jerka! Moohumed jihad!'' Or something like that.

Hence, whether they live in Libya or London or Lakemba, Muslims are all the same. They are one community and they are all out to get us. It's bin-Laden logic in reverse. Sadly, Muslims have to take some responsibility for its existence.

When even columnists of respected broadsheets fail to understand the complex nature of local Muslim communities, something is going terribly wrong. It isn't enough to blame the paranoia of cultural warriors. Unfortunately, in Australia the popular perception of Muslims is affected by the insistence of certain caricatured Muslims to stick their heads in front of the camera and pretend to spin like politicians.

The ignorance of many first-generation migrant Muslim spokespeople of the experiences of their children and grandchildren's generations is chronic. We've read much speculation about young Muslims allegedly vulnerable to the influence of radical "thick Sheiks'' and caught up in a cultural "twilight zone''.

Recently, a delegation of first-generation migrant South-Asian Muslim leaders advised the British Government that the best way to deal with youths becoming radicalised was to introduce sharia in family law. Seriously, some people just have no idea. But who has bothered to ask young Muslims themselves?

Then again, how many young Muslims of these generations have put pen to paper and informed us of their point of view? In the absence of solid facts and information, the only option left to policymakers and commentators is to speculate.

Unlike in Australia, Islam in Britain is more culturally homogenous. Over 70 per cent of British Muslims have South-Asian heritage Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Further, Britain has opened its doors to migrants and asylum-seekers from other parts of the world.

The two books reviewed represent two different experiences of growing up British and Muslim. Mohammed Mahbub "Ed'' Husain's autobiographical work focuses on his journey into and out of political Islam in the context of a traditional Bangladeshi upbringing. Husain's Bangladeshi background was something he sought to escape, despite the fact that Bengali nationalism remains a strong force given that the nation only separated itself from Pakistan in 1971.

Rageh Omaar's ancestral land of Somalia also only recently gained independence. His mother insisted on giving him an indigenous Somali name ``Rageh'' which has no equivalent in Arabic.

Omaar writes that his parents, both Somali nationalists, sent him and his siblings to private schools in Britain in the hope that, after graduation, they would return to Somalia to help build their nation. Omaar's family therefore regard their Somali heritage as a crucial part of their identity. As such, Omaar's experience of Islam is intimately tied to his ancestry and ethnicity.

The differences between cultural practices of Islam in Bangladeshi and Somali culture immediately become apparent within the first few chapters of each book. Both Omaar and Husain's family follow Sufi mystical orders with origins in the work of the universally respected (in Muslim circles) 12th-century Baghdad jurist Abdul Qadir Jilani. This Sufi order, known as the "Qadiri'' order, is the largest Sufi order in the Islamic world, with followers in all Muslim communities.

Yet the Somali experience of migration has been very different. Most Bengali migrants did not spend years on end in a refugee camp in the desert. Despite much political instability, Bangladesh has never been declared a failed state.

Further, religion has not defined Bengali Muslim culture as much as it has Somali culture. Bengali Muslims speak the same language and use the same script as Bengali Hindus. Writers like the Nobel Prize-winning Tagore are respected by Bengali-speakers of all creeds. What defined Bangladesh was not so much religion as language.

For me, it was quite a revelation to learn from Omaar's book that thousands of Somalis share a culture and language with northern Ethiopians. What differentiates them is religion. If you are Muslim, you are regarded as either ethnically Somali or Eritrean.

Husain's writing is self-absorbed. His entire focus is on his journey into various forms of political Islam. Husain's understanding of cultural forms of South-Asian Islam is solely derived from his experiences growing up in Britain. He never travelled to Bangladesh, and clearly had little understanding of how Bengali Muslims developed a separate Muslim cultural identity.

Omaar, on the other hand, shows a strong understanding of what it means to be a Somali Muslim, whether living in London or in the Ethiopian refugee camp of Hartishek that housed hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. Despite being educated in Britain, Omaar's writing shares with us not just his own story but the stories of other Somalis. His profiles of London bomber Yassin Hassan Omar and dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali are especially enlightening.

Readers interested in the supposed attraction of political Islam to young Muslims will find Husain's book useful. Omaar's book, on the other hand, is a useful read for those seeking an understanding not just of one individual but of a migrant experience emerging from a failed state. Reading both accounts should be enough for any but the most jaundiced reader to realise that comparing one Muslim group with another is like comparing apples with oranges.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of AltMuslim.com. This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 28 July 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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irving said...

A really excellent and enlightening review of both books from a Muslim cultural perspective. Thank you.

Ya Haqq!

Roxanne said...

Dear Irfan,

I'm looking for Australian Muslim women's Blogs. I wonder if you would know where I need to start. Any advice on how to go about it would be greatly appreciated.

Kind regards