by Imam Hassan Qazwini
Book review by Paul M. Barrett
Barrett is the author of American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, which was published by Picador in paperback this year.
A visit earlier this year to the Dearborn, Michigan office of Hassan Qazwini offered a revealing glimpse of the dual realities confronting Muslims in America. The imam had just finished presiding over a funeral at the Islamic Center of America, the largest and most imposing mosque in a city of mosques. He wore robes the color of milk chocolate and a jet black turban. Exiting male worshipers embraced him, murmuring words of respect and gratitude, to which Qazwini responded with gentle blessings: a talented cleric at ease with an admiring congregation.
Switching from Arabic to English, the imam ushered several non–Muslim visitors into an inner sanctum where he graciously poured steaming tea. With the topic of conversation ranging from local to national politics, Qazwini demonstrated an intense interest in public affairs. He referred to Thomas Friedman’s latest column in The New York Times and a fundraising dinner being held that night by an Arab–American civil rights group in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Only in America,” we agreed.
The mood shifted as the imam changed the topic to some personal business with one of his guests, a senior official with the Department of Homeland Security. The two men had met several times before and enjoyed a friendly acquaintance. Qazwini knows many prominent people in Washington and has attended events at the White House during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Still, he told the man from Homeland Security, nearly every time he tried to board a plane at the Detroit airport, he was pulled from the security line and told that his name appeared on the no-fly list This was a painful embarrassment for one of the best–known Islamic religious leaders in the United States, a member of a storied Shia Iraqi religious dynasty, a graduate of the seminary in the holy Iranian city of Qom, and now a leading spokesman for Muslim integration into American society. Chagrined, the Bush administration official promised to address what all agreed was a case of mistaken identity.
Qazwini’s memoir, “American Crescent,” draws mostly on the more optimistic aspects of his fascinating life and outlook. But a running conflict between hope and frustration, between confidence and alienation, haunts what the author clearly intends as an encouraging account in the great tradition of American immigration stories.
There is no one Muslim experience in the United States. American Islam is a complex mixture of cultures foreign and homegrown, clashes between faith and secularism, and tension over choices posed by assimilation versus assertion of separate identity. Qazwini’s perspective, although not necessarily typical, is nevertheless worth the careful consideration of Muslims and non–Muslims alike.
“American Crescent” tells the story of the author’s journey from Karbala, Iraq, where he was born in 1964, to the United States, where he arrived in 1992, spending significant periods in between in Kuwait and Iran. Persecuted under Saddam Husseinn, along with millions of other Shia Muslims, the Qazwini family fled their homeland and found refuge in the U.S., where they have established mosques and Islamic centers in California and Michigan. The author’s father, a legendary ayatollah, has now returned to Karbala where he presides over the city’s most important mosque and dodges assassination attempts amid the continuing sectarian chaos.
One of the valuable contributions of “American Crescent” is its distinctive Shia viewpoint: a sense of history and spirituality drenched in persecution, dating back to the early divisions within Islam that led to the formation of the dominant Sunni and minority Shia sects. Qazwini offers an informative, and for the most part even–handed, explanation of the differences in ritual and interpretation. He is less even–handed in his analysis of current Iraqi politics, betraying a highly partisan preference for a religiously influenced Shia leadership and an implacable, if understandable, animosity toward Iraqi Sunnis.
When his gaze turns to the United States, Qazwini’s religious sectarianism fades. He makes an impassioned argument that Muslims of all backgrounds ought to take advantage of America’s freedoms and opportunities while at the same time deepening their faith. His family’s experience illustrates one enjoyed by many Muslim immigrants in this country: discovery of greater religious liberty than they had in their troubled homelands. For Qazwini, this allows him to lead a life fully immersed in Islam but at the same time heavily involved in politics and public affairs. His personal charisma and gregariousness have made him a well–known figure in Michigan and a frequent guest on national radio and television shows.
For Muslims, Qazwini prescribes an orthodox degree of observance, complete with parochial education and adherence to decidedly old world restrictions on relations between men and women. Two of his sons are following him into the “family business,” studying in Iran to be imams. More secular American Muslims may choose different paths, including paths that Qazwini would frown upon. But his basic message has a constructive ring: nothing in the Quran or the lessons of the Prophet Muhammad precludes Muslims from living happily in the predominantly Christian West and committing themselves to the pluralist creed of American society.
Qazwini doesn’t ignore the discomfort of the immigrant forced to adjust to strange new customs, but he takes the long view, noting that other newcomers, including Catholics and Jews, have overcome bigotry and thrived in the U.S. As measured by income levels, educational attainment, and even participation in civic activities like voting, Muslims are moving in the same promising direction.
The unfortunate footnote to this mainly encouraging tale is the fallout from the attacks of September 11, 2001—as illustrated by Qazwini’s wearisome encounters with security personnel at the airport. Giving voice to a common complaint among American Muslims, he believes that the government has used the terrorist attacks as an excuse to feed anti–Muslim and anti–Arab prejudice. Here he tends to overstate his case, perceiving intentional harassment where bureaucratic bungling is a more likely explanation. Incompetence, not conspiracy, explains the shortcomings of the Transportation Security Administration. Similarly, Qazwini could criticize Muslim–baiting from certain Christian pulpits and conservative talk radio stations without resorting to calling the bigots “American bin Ladens.” There’s a difference between blowing up buildings and expressing odious opinions.
One can disagree strongly with some of Qazwini’s attitudes while still appreciating the overall thrust of his book. His written description of a very different sort of airport scene is memorable:
My family and I arrived in Los Angeles on December 6, 1992, on a British Airways flight from Dubai, eager to see how America would greet us. The customs official could have glanced at the previous pages of my passport and learned of my trips to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria; he might also have noticed that I hadn’t been to America before, but he applied a red stamp in the ’Entries’ column and ushered me past with an unexpected greeting: ’Welcome home.’ As I waited for my wife and children to catch up, the words of Imam Ali came to me, a plea for civility and pragmatism over nationalism: ’Your country does not belong to you more than any other country. The best country is the one that treats you well.’
We don’t have to share all of the imam’s beliefs to wish fervently that his adopted country will erase his name from the no–fly list and continue to treat him and his fellow Muslim Americans well.