Journey Into America: the challenge of Islam

Rarely have I read a book that is as timely, informative and engaging as Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam by Dr. Akbar Ahmed, considered one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the world.

Beginning in 2008, he and his young research team set out across America, visiting at least 75 cities and 100 mosques as they talked to thousands of American Muslims, and interviewed non-Muslims on their views of Islam.

It was an anthropological study, so the data is reported in dozens of fascinating stories that underline the key findings. Dr. Ahmed and two members of his young research team are the lead guests this week on Interfaith Voices. (The show will be posted by Friday, August 13).

A major theme running throughout the book is relevant for those of all faiths, including Catholics.

Dr. Ahmed and his team sought to understand how Muslims see themselves as part of America, and how non-Muslim Americans see Islam. So they asked the pivotal question: What does it mean to be an American? They asked that question across the country, and developed a typology of “American identities:”

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  • The “primordial” identity, embraced by Americans who identity with our earliest settlers, like those who came on the Mayflower;

  • The “pluralist” identity, describing Americans who celebrate our diversity and describe our heritage as “E Pluribus Unum,” one from many;

  • The “predator” identity, that streak in American identity that is fearful of others who are “different,” whether it be Native Americans, African Americans, communists in the age of Joe McCarthy or Muslims today.

The latter identity can often spawn violent, repressive responses, and sometimes wars.

He is quite clear that our Founders were pluralists, and many had a high opinion of Islam. Dr. Ahmed is especially enamored with Thomas Jefferson.

We Catholics are not “naturals” for Mayflower identity, although Maryland may attract our primordial instincts. But Maryland was a colony founded on religious tolerance. So our roots and our instincts should be pluralist. What we have to root out is any whiff of that “predator” instinct, which can infect any of us.

Ending wars with our Muslim neighbors on this planet… like the Afghans… might be a good start.

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