Every year, hundreds of Westerners abandon life in affluent societies in favor of a sojourn in austere piety in Yemen. Undercover Muslim examines those who journey to the country in search of a lifestyle deemed as a better way to fulfill Islamic orthodoxy.
Padnos travelled to Yemen to learn Arabic, and after a stint working as a journalist, converted to Islam. He assumed an Arabic name, pursued Qur'anic study, and immersed himself among those who came to do the same. The chronicle of his experiences in Undercover Muslim prompts far more questions than it answers. Did he, as the "undercover" in the title suggests, assume this lifestyle with an exposé in mind from the very start? The author presents his conversion and adopted lifestyle as genuine, yet he repeatedly appears skeptical of the intellectual tunnel-vision he witnesses.
Alternatively, is Padnos himself a drifter, like those about whom he writes? In his telling, travelers to Yemen are as much wastrels as pilgrims. Padnos quotes one: "I've had a difficult childhood for sure," then adds, "He had been thrown out of schools, beaten by his stepfather, and arrested by police." Many he encounters are fleeing something as much as pursuing something, and the community he lives among is one of suspicion and anonymity. Enquiries into the men's backgrounds are strictly off limits: "'Why are you so curious?' he wondered when I asked about his [French] father's view of his career. 'Why aren't we discussing the unity of God?'" Padnos, too, comes under scrutiny: "The good news is that we don't think that you're working for the CIA any more. … The bad news is that we've been watching you. In fact, everyone has remarked about you, and everyone is wondering what you're really up to." The latter point is valid.
Undercover Muslim is not a whistle blowing revelation of extremism or militancy. Instead, Padnos quotes one religious student as saying that "it's just a boring life here" while offering snapshots of a lifestyle distant from the book's readership. While the work contains some interesting moments of reflection, amusement, and tension, it fails to place the experiences in a framework that examines or illuminates larger issues.