American Islam The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

Paul M. Barrett




Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
A Quill Book Award Finalist
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year

There are as many as six million Muslims in the United States today. Together with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is now an American religion, and the struggles of Muslims to reconcile their intense and demanding faith with our permissive society are the makings of a new chapter in the American story.

In American Islam, Paul M. Barrett takes readers into Muslim homes, mosques, and private gatherings from West Virginia to Los Angeles, depicting a population of striking variety. In vivid, subtle, artful prose, Barrett tells us seven representative stories of American Muslims in all their stereotype-defying complexity. Here is a black imam with a storefront mosque in Brooklyn who was once known as Jeffrey 12X of the Nation of Islam, whose lectures are distributed worldwide on cassette tapes; here is a tech-savvy graduate student in Idaho whose life grows complicated after the Patriotic Act is put into effect. Here are immigrant and native-born Muslims, black and white converts, Muslims who are well integrated into the larger society and those who are alienated and extreme in their political views. Here are Muslims who have succeeded in material terms and enriched our hybrid society, and those who have been shunned and hunted in the years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


Praise for American Islam

"American Islam contains profiles of [Mustafa] Saied and six other Muslims, many of whom are influencing the debate about what it means to follow Islam in the U.S. . . . Barrett has written a rich book full of insights into a religion many Americans don't know enough about. He provides a fresh information on a subject that has been written about extensively, and he does it in a way that lets readers—from those who know little about it to those with deeper background—learn something new about how Islam is practiced today."—Chicago Tribune

"A thoughtful exploration that is both comforting and alarming . . . American Islam reveals the variety of Muslim experience in the U.S., as well as profound aspects of Islam that are underappreciated in this country."—The Wall Street Journal

"These seven lives, and all the others they represent, heighten my sense that we should be practicing a more complicated patriotism, one with a pluralistic gaze."—Los Angeles Times

"Well wrought and engaging . . . A welcome antidote to the wide-spread Islamophobia that has infected so many Americans over the last five years . . . The book makes a compelling argument that the greatest tool in America's arsenal in the 'war on terror' may be its own thriving and thoroughly assimilated Muslim community."—The Washington Post Book World

"In the post-9/11 world Muslims have frequently been stereotyped as monolithically murderous, all 1.3 billion worldwide lumped together as extremists bent on destroying the West. The heated debates among Muslims themselves about violence committed under the banner of Islam are often drowned out in the fray. Paul M. Barrett's timely and engaging new book . . . brings some of those voices in the United States to life. The book draws partly from Mr. Barrett's reporting for The Wall Street Journal about Islam in America after the 2001 attacks . . . American Islam is perhaps most reassuring in noting that Muslims in the United States are more prosperous, better educated and more politically active than immigrants elsewhere in the West. They are not ghettoized as in Europe, just stigmatized at this point, and Mr. Barrett's cast implies that there are vigilant Muslims determined to uproot extremists should they try to plant themselves here."—Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times

"Engaging and clearly written, American Islam offers a valuable snapshot of the dynamism and controversies that characterize Muslim communities in the United States today."—David Pinault, America

"The ideal book to enlighten a whole host of people who don't realize they need it . . . [Barrett] has done a nearly miraculous job of writing thoughtfully, clearly and sensibly about a subject that usually stirs up a viper's nest of prejudice, defensiveness and paranoia . . . A scrupulously fair book."Laura Miller, Salon

"Barrett, a BusinessWeek editor who began writing about Islam while at the Wall Street Journal, takes readers deep inside Muslim America, revealing the struggles of identity that characterizes this diverse community, particularly in an age of constant fear over the next jihadi attack . . . Barrett's reporting is excellent . . . An energetic and skillful storyteller . . . The experiences of the individuals Barrett profiles demonstrate that, for all of their difficulties coming to terms with their American Muslim identity, all of them accept that both parts of that identity can be reconciled."—Democracy

"American Islam is a masterfully written and insightful examination of an increasingly important and growing group about which most Americans are not particularly well informed . . . A journalist by training, Barrett relies heavily on dialogue with the family members, colleagues, friends, and even enemies of his characters so as to paint a clear and accurate picture . . . Barrett's reflections on the fissures that exist between American Muslims—important issues of Shiite versus Sunni, blame for Sept. 11, degrees of orthodoxy, gender, and race, even as they fight for unity are both necessary and insightful . . . A much-needed look into the lives of a burgeoning but too often overlooked sector of the American population."—Harvard Crimson

"Few communities are simultaneously as important and as poorly understood as the Muslims of the United States. Eye-opening, penetrating, and unfailingly honest, American Islam brings us deep into the lives of influential doers and thinkers across the spectrum of Muslim diversity. Paul Barrett's intelligence and keen eye for detail make the book a pleasure to read; his admirable balance in writing about controversial figures makes it a major contribution to the continuing debate about the future of Islam in the United States."—Noah Feldman, author of After Jihad and Divided by God

"Barrett reveals the kaleidoscope of Islam in America—a collision of divergent values, backgrounds, and outlooks, a community struggling to strengthen, despite the difference within."—Asma Gull Hasan, author of American Islams: The New Generation and Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey

"This is a smart, careful look at America in the post-9/11 world. It is definitely worth the time of anyone wondering where the country is going."—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

"Paul Barrett's portraits of American Muslims are a rare gift to all of us who desire both intimate understanding and graceful writing. Barrett takes us into politically charged terrain in the most compelling way: through the personal stories of men and women trying to shape the heart of their faith."—Daniel Bergner, author of In the Land of Magic Soldiers

"'In America, Muslims do not think and act alike any more than Christians do.' So writes Business Week editor Barrett in this timely survey of America's six-million followers of Islam. Barrett highlights the diversity of Islam, noting that there are many differences among native-born and immigrant practitioners and even among long-established communities. Some Muslims are committed to liberalizing the faith, such as a young West Virginia woman who insists that she be allowed to pray in the same space as men. Another recounts his transformation from onetime member of the violent Muslim Brotherhood to ecumenicalist; this young man even ventures that he wishes his wife had not taken up wearing the hijab, but adds, 'It's no big deal.' Others are committed to a more conservative version of Islam, and others even to radical, virulently anti-Semitic brands of Wahhabism, with all their talk of Jews being 'brothers of monkeys and pigs' deserving of slaughter. Interestingly, Barrett notes, Muslim Americans tend to be wealthier and better educated than non-Muslims (59 percent, for instance, have college degrees, as compared to 27 percent of all American adults). They tend to observe the same sharp divisions between Shia and Sunni as can be found in the rest of the world. And, until late 2001, they tended to vote Republican . . . even as George Bush's team actively courted the Muslim vote. Following the attacks of 9/11, however, Muslims of every stripe and sensibility reported feeling singled out; Shiite supporters of the war in Iraq increasingly sided with their Sunni opponents, and it was not uncommon to hear support for—or at least a refusal to condemn—Osama bin Laden and his operatives. Necessary reading for police advocates of profiling, and highly useful for anyone wishing a greater understanding of Muslim compatriots."—Kirkus Reviews

"Barrett . . . provides portraits of individual Muslims living in the United States. By focusing on the personal experiences of these individuals, Barrett is able to offer a distinctive view of Islam in America."—Library Journal

"[A] fascinating and carefully researched portrait of Islam in contemporary America . . . One great contribution of the book is the diverse portrait it offers of Islam in America today, but as Barrett shows, such ideological and racial diversity haven't been easy: Pakistani immigrants are sometimes at odds with African-American converts and (mostly white) Sufi spiritualists; feminists draw angry fire as they strive for greater equality; and self-proclaimed progressive Muslims feel at odds as American mosques become increasingly conservative and strident. Barrett is an engaging writer who puts a human face on all of these issues. The book is remarkably evenhanded . . . Balanced and insightful, this grassroots journalistic account mines the complexity and depth of American Islam."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Paul M. Barrett

  • Paul M. Barrett, for eighteen years a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, where this book originated, currently directs the investigative reporting team at BusinessWeek. He is the author of The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America.

  • Paul M. Barrett David Rudes