By Barbara Falconer Newhall
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, Sumbul Ali-Karamali, White Cloud Press, 287 pages, $16.95
Two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, a friend emailed Sumbul Ali-Karamali to ask if she would be displaying an American flag the next day. People all over the country would be putting out their flags, the friend said, and she was worried for Ali-Karamali. “Because if you don’t display a flag, someone might think it’s because you’re Muslim that you’re not doing it.”
In her new book, The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, Ali-Karamali reports that on September 11, she was as frightened as every other American. She grieved for the victims and feared further attacks on her country. But she had another fear – that there would be a backlash of hatred and even violence against Muslim Americans, including herself, her husband and her small children.
Upon reading the email from her friend, Ali-Karamali’s first thought was, “Oh, God. And where was I to find a flag when everyone in the country was out buying all the available flags in our vicinity in a frenzy of patriotism?” She got on the phone with her husband; he called every store within twenty-five miles, trying to locate a flag, but no luck. All the stores were sold out.
If Ali-Karamali and her family had been fair-skinned and Christian, she writes, she would have given up on the flag idea right then and there. But as a faithful Muslim with ancestral roots in India, the dark-haired, olive skinned Ali-Karamali felt she couldn’t risk it – middle-class, suburban-reared American though she was.
She cast about for a solution. Poster board! She’d make an American flag out of poster board and paint. She phoned her husband, and he obligingly stopped for the supplies on the way home from work.
Ali-Karamali stayed up till 2:30 a.m. that night, painting red stripes on the white poster board and carefully filling in a blue background around the tiny white stars. When the job was done, she rubbed her cramped neck and admired her thirteen stripes and fifty white stars.
Fifty stars? She counted. There were only thirty-five! Ali-Karamali fell to the floor in a heap and wailed. She had run out of options. There was nothing to do but put the cardboard flag in her front window and hope that no one would be offended by the miscount.
Ali-Karamali’s father, a mathematics professor who had come to the U.S. as a young graduate student, tried to reassure her. He pointed out that the tension and fear in the weeks following September 11 could have been a lot worse. “If this were India, thousands of people would have been killed already in religious rioting.”
Yes, it could be worse, Ali-Karamali conceded. But this wasn’t India. This was the United States, and Ali-Karamali expected more of her country. She believed that human beings were capable of something better: “We can get up every morning and strive for peace. And the first step in striving for peace is understanding the Other. In twenty-first-century America, the Other is Muslim.”
And thus the idea for The Muslim Next Door was born. What was needed, Ali-Karamali believed, was a book written about mainstream Islam, as she believes most Muslims around the world understand it, a book that would illuminate her religion for an American audience, and explicate misunderstood, fear-inducing concepts like fatwa, hijab and jihad. She would make it clear that such things as terrorism and suicide are specifically forbidden by the Qur’an.
As a Muslim American woman who’d grown up on Star Trek and Disney movies in Southern California, Ali-Karamali was eminently qualified to write this book. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a law degree from the University of California at Davis. More to the point, she has a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She knows the Qur’an and she knows the body of Islamic law that has developed over the centuries.
The Muslim Next Door is a book of many refreshing insights, but the observation that most caught my attention was this: “How, then, do modern terrorists fit into the classical Islamic viewpoint? They actually do not. The ideology of most modern terrorist groups does not come from Islamic tradition but from post-colonialist national liberation ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
In other words, like most fundamentalists, those who use terrorist tactics in the name of Islam are not really returning to an earlier, purer form of Islam; they are products of modernity, they are eminently modern thinkers. (For more on some fascinating and controversial connections between fundamentalism and modernity, check out The Glory and the Power: The Fundamentalist Challenge to the Modern World by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Beacon Press, 1992.)
Full disclosure: I met Ali-Karamali at the annual Religion Newswriters Association conference in Washington, D.C., in September, 2008. Our hotel rooms were on the same floor and we enjoyed each other’s company so much that when we got off the elevator together after a long day of lectures and panels, we lingered there in the hall laughing and chatting till late into the night.
And so, I invite you to open this book and meet a delightful woman with a sense of humor, an intense loyalty to her country, a passion for the religion she holds at the center of her life – and an incisive legal mind.
© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall