Who are the Muslims in our midst? Terrorists? Existential threats to Western civilization? Sworn enemies of America?
These questions–rehearsed and scripted much like the answers–were rolled off the assembly line at a furious clip when America decided to wage war on two Muslim countries in the aftermath of September 11th.
Rarely have Muslims been invited to partake in this denunciation masquerading as discussion–except, of course, those polished ex-Muslims eager to denounce their former coreligionists carte blanche, accruing handsome benefits for themselves in the process.
War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims is a book which challenges the conventional and tiresome rhetoric aimed at Muslims–specifically, at the more than four million Americans who call Islam their faith.
Written by Melody Moezzi, a writer and lawyer who describes herself as “a thinking, feeling, educated and stubborn Muslim Iranian American woman,” the book does not address anti-Muslim prejudice through erudite exegesis. Rather, following the journalistic maxim of “show, don’t tell,” it engages the reader by presenting slices of 12 young Muslim American lives, including the author’s own, in accessible prose.
Moezzi presents us with a multiplicity of stories, including that of two Americans who convert to Islam despite ubiquitous domestic depictions of Muslims as fanatics; a young woman from Iran whose parents fled at the eve of the war with Iraq; a young man with an Egyptian father, Korean mother, and a penchant for rapping; a Bosnian war refugee turned legal advocate; a Wall Street Journal reporter close to the slain journalist Daniel Pearl; and a founder of a Muslim organization who braved death threats to serve the LGBTQ community.
What ties together these narratives is a common struggle for identity, acceptance, and achievement–not necessarily as strangers in a hostile land, but as Americans treated as such.
Moezzi freely interjects her opinions and her observations of those being interviewed. While her thoughts occasionally occupy too much of the page compared to those of her subjects, she firmly anchors her commentary (and her right to provide it) during the first chapter, where she explains her own background.
Her parents, who fled Iran’s Islamic revolution, “have always cautioned me against religion,” and “never fully endorsed the practice of one religion to the exclusion of any others…” Moezzi stopped attending mosque at the age of eight or nine after neo-Nazis attacked it, went to a Catholic school, and studied in Madrid while living with nuns. After studying “the writings of old dead white men” and suffering a debilitating ailment in college, she turned to the Quran (Islam’s holy book, which Muslims believe was revealed to the prophet Muhammad).
“I had unwittingly found a path that looks as if it could work for me, and the fact that this path accepted the viability of other paths and other pilgrims was what convinced me of our compatibility,” she writes.
Because of the book’s tone and style, there is scarce room to explain Islamic teachings and precepts, which the interviewees invariably touch upon in discussing their identities. Fortunately, each chapter is prefaced by Quranic verses, elegant and lyrical even in translation, providing readers a glimpse of Islam free from the pollution pumped out by sundry Fox News-style pundits.
Another shortcoming of the book’s tenor is harder to correct. Moezzi repeatedly refers to Islamic fundamentalists in dismissive terms–as “fools,” guilty of “lunacy,” or as a “parasitic mockery” of Islam. While fundamentalism is certainly deplorable, waving off this phenomenon as almost inexplicable discounts the role US foreign policy has played in cultivating it by financing militants and fueling their cause through our country’s own state terrorism. Moezzi is doubtlessly aware of these factors, and mentions them elsewhere, but the book’s format makes the tie-in less than obvious.
Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles and perhaps inevitable tradeoffs. Overall, Moezzi, writes clearly, passionately, and sincerely, giving the fair-minded reader a sorely needed introduction to American Muslims that defies the scripted questions with unscripted answers.
M. Junaid Alam, 25, was the co-editor of Left Hook, a youth journal which ran from Nov. 2003 to March 2006. He is a journalism graduate of Northeastern University and has worked for the daily press in suburban Mass. and weeklies in Queens, New York. He currently works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area.