Monday, June 14, 2010

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri's "A History of Islam in America"

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities at Reed College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order, and reported the following:
A History of Islam in America explores the variety of ways in which Muslims have historically participated in American life through community and institution building. It offers a narrative of the encounters and exchanges between Muslims and non-Muslims since European explorers sought to navigate through the Atlantic in order to bypass the trade routes that went through the Muslim Ottoman and Mamluk Empires. It culminates with a history of the growing presence of Muslims in the U.S. in recent decades and the changes in their institutions in light of 9/11 and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the context of America’s attempts to define its national identity as a multicultural society and the world’s sole superpower.

Page 99 doesn’t reveal the whole book but discusses an important time of transition American Muslim history. In the post-Civil War era, as the United States became more religiously and ethnically diverse, there was competition over who had the cultural authority “to define America’s national identity and to lay claim to its economic, industrial, and scientific advancements.” At this time, race, religion, and progress were not seen as discrete categories but were conflated to define America and its prosperity as essentially a product of Anglo-American Protestantism. On this page, I argue that this conflation “is important for narrating the history of Islam in America at the turn of the twentieth century for two reasons.” First, although intended as an exclusionary measure, it ironically functioned as an identity matrix through which members of other ethnic and religious groups could lay claim to America’s progress and help reshape America’s national identity. Later in the book, I discuss how early immigrants from the Levant and South Asia, some of them Muslim, sought to self-identify as Caucasians in the 1910s and 1920s in order to establish not only their citizenship but their claim on America.

“Secondly, in the context of European imperialism, a similar discourse around race, religion, and progress was employed to justify the colonization of much of the Muslim-majority world as a ‘civilizing’ or ‘modernizing’ project.” Consequently, “Muslim missionaries who immigrated to the United States in this period were intimately familiar with the way in which race, religion, and progress were conflated to support the colonization and oppression of dark-skinned non-Europeans.” In the U.S., they did not challenge this conflation but rather grappled with it to find Islam’s place within it. They argued that Islam, not Christianity, truly represented progress. They proselytized Islam as a religion of universal brotherhood and progress in northern metropolises and industrial centers, which were receiving black migrants from the South. As the ensuing chapters show, this had far-reaching consequences for the history of Islam in America because it facilitated the conversion of African Americans to Islam and provided a way by which many African Americans formed a distinct black, Muslim national identity through which they sought to participate in American progress and modernity.
Read an excerpt from A History of Islam in America, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue