A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam in America
by Imam Hassan Qazwini
New York: Random House, 2007. 284 pp. $26.95
My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
New York: Tarcher-Penguin, 2007. 294 pp. $24.95
Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization
by Akbar Ahmed
Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2007. 323 pp. $28.95
These books, published almost simultaneously, provide alarming glimpses into three levels of Muslim life in America. These are: first, the sphere of ideological Islamist leadership, in which the Dearborn-based Shi'i figure Qazwini, born in Iraq to a well-known, originally Iranian lineage, has assumed a prominent role. Second, Gartenstein-Ross describes the little-known but disturbing experience of a Jewish-born convert to Islam who became involved in the Saudi-financed Wahhabi radical network, as exemplified by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which has its American headquarters in Ashland, Ore. The third, a think-tank volume by Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University, is characteristic of recent Beltway briefing manuals in providing a brazen defense of radical Islam to U.S. policymakers.
Although he is not fully credited, Qazwini's book was coauthored—i.e., probably ghostwritten—by Brad Crawford, a freelance author. Not surprisingly, the narrative is nothing if not contradictory. Qazwini first came to the attention of the American public in 2003 when President George W. Bush kissed him on the cheek in front of media photographers. At that point, Qazwini was widely considered among American Shi'i Muslims as one among many enthusiastic supporters of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.
In this text, however, discussion of the Iraq war comes after digressive disclaimers of broader Muslim responsibility for September 11, vague reminiscences of the Bush campaign of 2000, and complaints about the 2001 Patriot Act, which causes Qazwini to go so far as to compare the Bush administration with the regime of Saddam Hussein. Then, forgetting his intimate embrace of the president and the role of Iraqi-American Shi'a in demanding war in Iraq as a means of liberating the Shi'i shrine of Karbala, Qazwini declares disingenuously, "The war in Iraq was just as messy in my mind as it was on the ground. My Iraqi relatives had real freedom of expression for the first time in their lives—but amid the sort of turmoil where talking is of little use."
Either because of deceit by Qazwini or incompetence by his coauthor, American Crescent is an exemplar of incoherence. While one hesitates to accuse him of deception, it is obvious that Qazwini wishes to affirm the martyrdom of Iraqi Shi'a at the hands of Saddam and his own loyalty to America while at the same time attempting to grant ideological satisfaction to an array of critics of the Iraq war. There is a better term for this than deception: It is ingratitude.
Qazwini's revisionism on the Iraq war and American Shi'i involvement with it overshadows such typically absurd touches, seen in similar books, as the claim that American "Muslims didn't object to [2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate] Senator [Joseph] Lieberman's Jewishness, but rather to his unconditional support for the pro-Israeli lobby." Qazwini describes himself as speaking to Bush only of removing Saddam, not of invasion. But such a distinction, if meaningful, was too obscure to appear in the public discourse at the time the Iraq intervention began, and a self-serving attempt to recast events, such as that to which Qazwini has here committed himself, will not change that reality. America's most prominent Shi'i cleric, in producing this book, has accomplished little in service of the Shi'i principle of divine justice.
Gartenstein-Ross's story of his involvement with the Al-Haramain Foundation includes an evocation of the Jewish commitment to liberal values and social justice, but the emphasis on the latter is the only element this work has in common with Qazwini's book. A Kenyan-born Muslim friend at college, Al-Husein Madawy, included in the dedications of the book, had journeyed from Ismaili Shi'ism through an unspecified radical form of Sunnism and introduced the young Jewish Oregonian liberal to the mystical Islamic Sufi tradition.
Gartenstein-Ross was drawn to Sufism and made his affirmation of faith, or shahada, while traveling in Italy. When he returned to Ashland, he found a local Islamic congregation, which the author attended for prayers, led by an Iranian, Pete Seda, also known, according to a federal indictment, as Pirouz Sedaghaty and Abu Yunus. This congregation was Wahhabi and hosted a sermon by a Saudi preacher, Hassan Zabady. Madawy, the Sufi mentor of Gartenstein-Ross, tried to debate the Wahhabi imam but without effect.
From prayer in a backroom mosque in Ashland, Gartenstein-Ross went on to employment at Al-Haramain, an ambitious expansion of which was enabled by a significant influx of Saudi financing. Seda and his associates established the young convert's hometown as the first American headquarters of the powerful charity, which has acted as a cover for Wahhabi outreach and terrorist recruitment worldwide. For a year Gartenstein-Ross served Al-Haramain. But as his commitment to the charity increased, he was exposed to repellent Wahhabi teachings, such as those in favor of female genital mutilation and opposed to music. In a Wahhabi environment, the author succumbed, if only for a brief time, to the allure of purity.
The value of Gartenstein-Ross's book resides mainly in its description of ways in which Wahhabism has penetrated every aspect of American Muslim life, from prayer in rural communities to widespread missionary activity in the prison system. In perhaps the most dissonant of many incidents in this account, Gartenstein-Ross describes how Al-Haramain and Seda offered to support Serbia in its 1999 attacks on the Albanians of Kosovo, a majority of whom are Muslim, on the grounds that America, supporting the Kosovars by bombing Serbia, was the real culprit. Because of such details, even more than for its insights into the vulnerabilities of Americans who become Muslims, the book is indispensable.
Ahmed's volume, Journey into Islam, is likewise replete with details, but most are unoriginal if not banal and questionable. This book purports to introduce the complexities of the Islamic world to ignorant Westerners, based on an effort Ahmed conducted with a group of five American youth, grandly titled the "Islam in the Age of Globalization" research team. To those acquainted with the faith of Muhammad and the realities of politics in Muslim societies, there is little new or noteworthy in this compendium. In a pedestrian manner, using biased questionnaires, the volume recycles media clichés about the alleged social background of Islamist extremism with special pleading for Deobandism, the Islamic interpretation that produced the Afghan Taliban.
Ahmed, unfortunately, was induced to appoint as his "officially designated research assistant" one Hadia Mubarak, a notorious female hatemonger who has worked for the Wahhabi lobby's activist cadre, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and who today has moved on to the tutelage of America's outstanding apologist for Saudi Wahhabism, John Esposito of Georgetown University. Ahmed's book is thus a rather typical Beltway product: a waste of Brookings' resources, with dishonest subtextual elements, hawking the dangerous message that radical Islam is mainstream and moderate.
A key, summary claim is this: "President Bush reacted to the tragedy on September 11 in anger rather than with compassion or understanding." In the topsy-turvy world of American Islam, nothing, unfortunately, appears impossible today.
Stephen Schwartz is a principal investigator at the Center for Islamic Pluralism.