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Understanding Islam in America

A book looks at the diversity of the almost six million Muslims in the U.S.
/ Source: TODAY

Since September 11th, most discussion of Islam has centered on al Qaeda, suicide bombers, and religious violence in Iraq. But we tend to understand less about the 5 to 6 million Muslims who live right here in the United States. Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Business Week magazine, was invited on TODAY to discuss his new book, “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion.” Read an excerpt:

The Activist:
How to Go to America
His roots were anything but radical. On the plane from India to America in 1990, Mustafa Saied, eighteen, made a to-do list: learn to skateboard and bungee jump, go on road trips, and hang out with girls. Although this would be his first time in the United States, he already spoke fluent English, learned from rebroadcasts of Sesame Streetand Starsky & Hutch. As a teenager he had read and reread a guidebook titled How to Go to America. He selected the University of Tennessee because its catalog was in the library of the American consulate in his home state of Chennai and happened to include an application. There was a color photo of a quaint red-brick clock tower that reminded him of the clock tower in a favorite American movie import, Back to the Future, the 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy about time travel and teen romance.

In Knoxville he roomed with another outgoing engineering major who, like Saied, came from a highly educated Indian family. “We had many hobbies in common: basketball, football, movies, especially music,” the roommate, Rajesh Juriasingani, recalled. Pop singers George Michael and Paula Abdul were favorites. Religion didn’t come up much, said Juri­asingani, a Hindu.

When the Walt Disney Company recruited on campus for a work-study program, Saied leaped at the chance to spend a semester in an entry-level job at Disney World, taking evening classes on the company’s approach to business. “It was like a dream come true for me,” he said. He left Orlando in 1993 with a “Ducktorate” degree and a formal photograph of himself, in a suit and tie, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Back in Knoxville, he decided on impulse one afternoon to drop by the inconspicuous mosque near campus, even though it wasn’t a Friday. “I don’t know what it was; I just wanted to go there,” he recalled. In the sparsely furnished one-story mosque, he found a small group of students sitting on the floor, discussing verses from the Quran. Never shy, Saied offered a few opinions — showing off, really. His listeners praised his insight and his Arabic pronunciation. They invited him back.

He was deeply flattered. “I knew a couple of things, and they were so impressed,” he said. It wasn’t a deeply spiritual experience. Instead he felt as if he had been invited into an elite club, a semisecret fraternity. Displays of piousness, rather than drinking prowess, established one’s credentials. He decided on the spot to grow a full beard and begin praying five times a day.

Such transformations, if usually not quite so abrupt, aren’t rare on university campuses: the relatively secular young Muslim who tilts toward religious orthodoxy while in a strange environment heavy on beer, dating, and casual sex. In many cases, Islam becomes a shelter from the unfamiliar, an identity taken to extremes as a cure for loneliness. But Saied didn’t fit the model precisely. He had gone to parties and mingled easily with non-Muslims, and when he suddenly got caught up in his faith, he went a big step beyond praying regularly and attending mosque.

He had received a religious education growing up. But his father, a petroleum plant supervisor, and his mother, an electrical engineer who stayed home to raise Mustafa and his older sister, taught their children that as Muslims they weren’t better than their Hindu neighbors, just different. He attended a Hindu school and accompanied friends to Hindu celebrations. As a boy he spent two years with his family in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for the oil industry. His parents shielded the children from Saudi fundamentalism, leaving young Mustafa with the sense that it was something foreign. He once saw a public beheading from a car window, but his stronger memories were of a shiny American-style shopping mall and the green, well-watered lawns of the gated residential compounds for oil executives.

Now, spurred on by his new friends in Knoxville, he reshaped his worldview according to a handful of passages from the Quran. He and other Muslim immigrant students were drawn to verses that, when interpreted literally, seemed to encourage intolerance, such as the one stating, “Whomsoever follows a religion other than Islam, this will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers” (3:85). He loved the admiration his new friends showed for his skill at flinging bits of scripture. “It polished up my ego,” he told me. He blithely adopted an outlook—Muslims are superior to all others—that was sharply at odds with what he had learned as a child. Americans, with their mysterious rituals — children dressed as devils on Halloween, the anthropomorphic bunny on Easter — are no better than pagans. Jews secretly scheme to take over the world. “You’re sitting there, ready to be brainwashed,” Saied recalled years later. “You want to be accepted, so you say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ You accept it.”

Within a few months of his first visit to the Muslim Community of Knoxville, as the mosque is known, Saied was asked to deliver the sermon during a Friday prayer service attended by about three hundred students and other Muslims. Speaking from the minibar, or pulpit, he excoriated Americans who indulged in alcohol, premarital sex, and “false” holidays. He continued periodically to give sermons, peppering them with condemnations of Jews and Israel. Anti-Semitism provided the glue connecting claims of Muslim persecution worldwide. “Our view was that suicide bombings were fine,” he recalled. “Israel is the oppressor; Israel does not have the right to exist. It must be destroyed.” After such talks a few wor­shipers sometimes would scold him, but there were no other negative consequences. Saied and his circle of a dozen or so Muslim immigrant friends laughed off any critics as ignorant or corrupt.

As he gained con?dence in his new persona, he tried it out in more open settings. When a visiting religion scholar gave a talk on campus ex­pressing skepticism of Muslim fundamentalists, “Mustafa stood up, glared around at people, and announced, ‘I’m a Muslim fundamentalist, and there is only one true Islam,’ ” remembered Rosalind Gwynne, the long­time faculty adviser of the University of Tennessee chapter of the Muslim Students Association. “You see this among some of the immigrant stu­dents from time to time, trying to live in this country in a box, hermeti­cally sealed,” she said. Saied began wearing a kafiyeh headdress similar to that favored by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. His freshman roommate, Rajesh Juriasingani, listened in dismay as Saied declared he was through with pop music, movies, and dating. Saied eventually dropped all his non-Muslim friends, including Juriasingani. Like many activist Muslim students, Saied joined a small Islamic study group. His often focused on the writings of Youssef al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric based in Qatar who is a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Al-Qaradawi gained fame in the 1960s by pub­lishing The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, a book that presents Islam as a compendium of rules for all aspects of life. Considered by many Mus­lims to be a moderate on relations with the West, al-Qaradawi endorses “martyrdom operations” against Israel and Jews. For months in 1994 Saied sensed that members of his study group were testing his allegiance to fundamentalism. He steadfastly expressed enthusiasm for al-Qaradawi’s views.

One afternoon an older member of the study group who came from the United Arab Emirates summoned Saied to a nearly empty campus cafeteria. The two settled into a quiet corner, and Saied’s friend invited him to join the Muslim Brotherhood. “Everything I had learned pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood being an awesome thing, the elite move­ment,” Saied said of his initiation. “I cannot tell you the feeling that I felt; it was like awesome power... Needless to say, I said yes.” Excerpted from “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion” by Paul Barrett. Copyright 2006, Paul Barrett. All rights reserved. Published by No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publisher.