Friday, September 13, 2013

BOOKS: War On Error: Real Stories of American Muslims

War On Error: Real Stories of American Muslims 
Melody Moezzi
The University of Arkansas Press, 2007

Dr Umar Fariq Abd-Allah, a prominent American theologian, once described his adopted faith as akin to water which has no colour or shape of its own and takes on the colours and shapes of the places through which it flows.

“In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilisation.” 

So how does one apply this model of Islam to Muslims brought up in Western societies, whether as children of nominally Muslim migrants or as converts embracing a new faith? So often, we presume that Muslims are somehow more religious than followers of other faiths. Perhaps this is because the Muslim voices most often heard are those seeking to represent their vision of religious orthodoxy as opposed to Muslim cultural realities.

In Australia, some more embarrassing self-appointed Muslim spokesmen (and I mean men literally - as if women would say such silly things!) have become household names. Yet their views on sexual violence and polygamy hardly accord with Australian Muslim opinion (at least I hope they don’t), where domestic violence is frowned upon and polygamous relationships only exist in the less formal and more sinful realm. 

When we assume those seeking to speak on behalf of Islam in Australia necessarily also speak on behalf of Aussie Muslims, we end up often with an image that is distorted and not reflective of Muslim reality.

So can we apply this presumption of heterogeneity to other Western Muslims, including those in North America? Enter Melody Moezzi, a self-confessed “thinking, feeling, educated, and stubborn Muslim Iranian American woman”, a lawyer and writer brought up in Ohio and now residing in Atlanta. Moezzi’s first book, War On Error, provides pen portraits of twelve young American Muslims, including herself, her American Muslim convert husband Matthew and her childhood Iranian friend Roxana.

Moezzi makes clear that her work aims “to affirm the experiences of Muslim Americans as American experiences, as grounded in the American dream and the American ethic as any others” (emphasis is Moezzi’s). It is a risky and possibly self-defeating strategy, potentially giving rise to criticism that her insistence on Muslim heterogeneity involves presumptions of American homogeneity, of the existence of a singular monolithic “American ethic”.

Thankfully, Moezzi’s portraits don’t give rise to any stereotyping. Each individual profiled has a completely different reason to regard him or herself as Muslim, even if more devout Muslims might question their stated beliefs and lifestyle choices. Most of Moezzi’s profiles are of relatively unknown people with interesting stories. I was particularly pleased that Moezzi includes a profile of a bisexual Muslim, thus recognising that whatever we might think of homosexuality, not all Muslims are straight.

However, I was disappointed Moezzi spends an entire 11 pages on prominent Wall Street Journal writer Asra Nomani, who has already written about her own life in her well-known memoir Standing Alone In Mecca. Moezzi would have been better off finding a less well-known and more interesting Muslim, perhaps a former prison inmate or an African-American serviceman.

Indeed, the complete absence of a non-migrant (or distant migrant) African-American Muslim voice in Moezzi’s book is troubling. There is much bitterness among African-American Muslims about what many see as the dominance of migrant Muslims from the Middle East and Asia in Muslim religious and community affairs. African-American Muslims – whether of the more heterodox “Nation of Islam” variety or from more mainstream denominations - are a growing force in American Islam. America’s first two Muslim Congressmen are both African-American. It seems curious that Moezzi could not find a single African-American Muslim prepared to talk about his or her faith on the record.

It’s tempting to be put off by the somewhat clumsy title - War On Error – Moezzi gives to this her first book. Is she declaring war on the erroneous notions of American Muslims in the popular mindset? Is she suggesting that the current so-called war on terror has lost its direction? Or was the title just selected by her publisher?

Regardless of how or why so named, this book does much to dispel the many errors in public perception about Western Muslims. However, the limited sample of stories, dominated by migrants and converts (virtually all from Moezzi’s family, friends and friends of friends), and the complete absence of any African-American Muslim presence, provides an unnecessarily skewed vision of American Islam.

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