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Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America - Ranya Idliby

Several years ago, I read the first book written by Ranya Idliby, with two other women; each represented a different religion, each hoped to begin a dialogue to enable a better understanding of each other’s beliefs. The book was “The Faith Club”. Therefore, I was drawn to this novel when it appeared as an offer on Goodreads. I wanted very much to read it to try and better understand the current American Muslim point of view. From page one, it is interesting and appealing, however it is controversial. The author explains why she is a Muslim, what it means to be a Muslim in America, and her hope that she can be an American Muslim with her head held high. She has never been overly zealous, rarely attends a mosque, but uses Islam to keep her centered and to explain the exigencies of life and to help her tolerate and endure them.
In the early pages, Ranya attempts to describe what it is like to be a Muslim in an America that is Muslimphobic, not only because of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, but also because all of the major terrorist attacks that have since been perpetrated by Muslims.
She explains how hard it is to rear her children, to make them feel as if they are American. Her family lost its property in Palestine with the creation of Israel. (She does not explain the background. She does not mention that Palestinians and Arabs supported the Nazis, intent on wiping out all Jews, she does not explain the war at all in either Israel or Europe.) Her father was sent to America at age 16. He put himself through the University of Illinois, graduating with a double major in Engineering and Mathematics.
Slowly, as I read, I became disappointed with the author's approach. She seemed to espouse free speech for herself, wanting everyone to hear and accept her side, but she didn’t seem as unwilling to truly hear the other. I read the book with an open mind, eager to learn, but it began to feel like a book of essays eager to dispel the current fear of Muslims by indicting those who did not agree with her point of view. She seemed to be couching her remarks in an even-handed approach, but it the scales were heavily one-sided. There was too much emphasis on moral equivalents between the Jews and the Muslims, where there is none. Jews did not fly planes into buildings. Jews so-called “terrorism” was a matter of their absolute survival, a matter of life and death, when they fought the British and the Arabs. She does not fully elaborate on historic events; instead, she makes it seem like the Palestinians and the Muslims are somehow the greater victims rather than the major creators of their maligned self-image.
Reading this, as a Muslim terrorist group may have taken over a Malaysian passenger airline which has disappeared, a plane in which circumstantial evidence has people speculating about the two Muslim pilots and/or possibly two Iranians on board with stolen passports, as being responsible, I cannot but confirm my feelings that Ranya Idliby’s approach to this book was naïve at best, while I understand that she may be saying, "oh no, please not another Muslim', as I have often said, 'please don't let it be a Jew". While she believes in a magnanimous approach to religion, one in which there is one G-d we can all worship, she does not elaborate on which G-d it will be. Surely she realizes that the Muslims Christians and Jews cannot worship the same G-d, although they can support the same principles.. She offers a phrase, several times, which once said convert all who say it to Islam. Kind of tongue in cheek, since, proselytizing is not part of Judaism and it is part of other religions, I couldn’t help wondering, as I read, if I had converted, unknowingly, to worship her belief in G-d.
She questions many of the radical Muslim concepts and offers alternative interpretations of many of their practices, so that the image is far more peaceful and loving than the one often portrayed by our news media. She rightly understands that interpretation is often the problem. She expresses dislike for Fox News and most people on the right, whom she names. She criticizes the Tea Party, Sean Hannity, Alan West, Rush Limbaugh and others with whom she disagrees and never once points to anyone with a Liberal agenda. Those people she extols. Thus, she becomes guilty of all she rails against. She spews vitriol against her so-called enemies, those few whom she accuses of ranting about Muslim terrorists unfairly, pretty much blighting the entire right wing of America. (She refers to the phrase “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”; this is not a truism, surely, I agree, but certainly most terrorists are Muslim extremists.) She resents those who consider Muslim extremists representative of Islam as well.
I do understand how closely she is involved, emotionally, and intellectually, and physically working to support the Muslim agenda she believes in, and is therefore, more susceptible to over reacting in her own approach, as I am, as well. I also understand that she has grown more supportive of Islam as it is questioned more and more, as a defense of her deeply held religious beliefs, even if not steeped in the religion’s practice. I am a non-practicing Jew, except for high holidays, but I am a great believer in its culture and you cannot separate me from my religion. I am a Jew and a Jew is me.
However, as an American, I would not support any Jew over any American, unless I felt they were better qualified. She refers to her son wondering if he has to support American athletes. Would it be all right if he supported a Muslim athlete since they have not achieved as much success? While I might support a Jew who is competing, I could not see myself supporting someone unqualified on the basis of religion. My loyalty and my nationalism are for my country, not my religion. In addition, the sympathy is unwarranted for me. If they are worthy, they will win, but since she compares Muslim and Jewish athletes, assuming Jews support them, has there ever been a massacre of a team from a Muslim country as there was of the Olympic team in Germany? I felt that her sympathies were often misplaced and too subjective, rather than objective. Her s
She described many instances in which she tried to make moral equivalents between Jewish history and Muslim history which confounded me. One cannot compare the “terrorist” acts, one cannot compare the numbers of supposed “terrorists” (according to statistics, the low number of Orthodox Muslims, who could be radicals, is at least 120,000,000); one cannot compare the reasons for the terrorism. In one case, it was a matter of life and death and in the other it was a case of a radical group trying to annihilate another group to initiate the beginning of a dominant caliphate.
I do not profess to be a scholar in this matter, I only mean to imply that her book, rather than enlighten me by broadening my understanding of our differences, only served to reinforce my feelings that we are very different. I was very disappointed. She has written a book that seemed intent on pointing fingers at the Jews in her attempt to white-wash the Muslim image. She seemed guilty of the same approach to the subject that seemed to rile her when applied to Islam and Muslims. She pointed fingers at outliers. Rather than effectively explaining why Muslims should not be painted with such a broad brush, she painted others with a subtly, accusatory brush. While she criticized Fox News for their interpretation of the Muslim crises, she did not say one word about the one-sided drivel often coming from MSNBC. If you can’t see both sides, you can’t present an even-handed explanation. I completely understand her very understandable attempt to come to terms with the extremists giving Islam a bad name, but she seemed to become obsessed with trivialities instead of realities. Fox news and those who rail against the Muslim terrorists, perhaps to the extreme, did not put bombs in their shoes, did not hijack planes, did not bring down the Towers, did not try to plant a car bomb in New York City, just to name a few.
She seems to be conflating Jewish issues with Muslim issues, yet Jews have been faced with annihilation for thousands of years because of their beliefs and have not committed acts of terrorism against the rest of the world. She condemns those who watch Fox News which effectively paints me with that same broad brush, even though I had hoped to find a path to better understanding from reading her book. I never questioned Idliby’s right to be a Muslim or her choice to be a Muslim anymore than I believed she questioned my right to be a Jew. I wanted to find a way to understand why there is so little respect for life on the part of the radicalized. I did not want my political or religious beliefs maligned any more than she wanted hers denigrated.
Then, oh boohoo, she notes that an athlete was criticized for saying he was proud to be Palestinian, well, Jews, for years were murdered for simply being Jews, exiled, maligned and humiliated for being Jewish. I did not believe she could seriously equate that kind of behavior to the behavior of radicals intent on destruction and death. She felt sorry for that athlete, but where was her sympathy for the murdered adults and children on those planes and in those towers who never got the chance to grow up or see their parents, who never got the chance to say they were proud to be whatever they were?
She seems to be writing a series of essays to prove her point which would have been helpful had it been unbiased. She does not mention the Palestinian and Arab refusal to recognize Israel, and she does not deal with the issue of the right of return which would effectively take Israel away from Jewish control. She doesn’t elaborate on the fact that when the Jews controlled the Holy sites, they opened them to all, that Jews welcome Arabs into Israel while they are not welcome into many Muslim countries and must even have an alternate passport without Israeli stamps in them and must not wear the Magen David if they enter that country. There is more freedom in Israel today, than in Muslim countries. Israel has evolved forward while the other countries have evolved backwards.
While she tends to equivocate, taking both sides of an issue as equal, she doesn’t always present them that way. She cites gentle passages from the Quran while disregarding the more hostile. I don’t know if it is true, but I have heard that the interpretation of the Quran in Arab countries is far different than the one in America, in the English version, however, there are many versions and interpretations of the Jewish Holy books, as well. However, we don’t declare fatwas against those who disagree with us. The extremist viewpoint and interpretation can simply not be trivialized with flowery, hopeful statements. Idliby feels persecuted unjustly, and I do not blame her. She is not guilty of any of the terrorist acts, what I did not appreciate was her casting so many aspersions upon Jewish behavior, under the cloak of a possible explanation for Muslim behavior. Even today, the world fights Israel’s existence. They support a boycott, lob missiles into the country, force children to hide in shelters and quake in fear. In America, her children do not suffer, yet in America, boycotts of Israeli products are supported by some radical groups.
I was not expecting a book which weighed so heavily on the condemnation of Jews as it attempted to acquit Muslims or a book which equated the radicalization of Arabs to the negative publicity they receive in America and correlate it with the reason they question their allegiances. I was not expecting a book with so many platitudes rather than concrete information that I could use to comprehend her trials. She proclaims innocence when she says she doesn’t understand why Americans object to the building of the Mosque and community center so near the site of the attack on 9/11, a committee on which she serves. Well, as a relative of someone who was injured, I believe she is very naïve. Surely she is aware of the idea that throughout Islamic history, they built their mosques over the houses of worship of the people they conquered. Whether or not that is the objective in this case, to be so insensitive to the emotional effects on those directly affected by the Towers attack is to pretend to be utterly naïve when she is not. It was a Muslim journalist who helped carry my relative to safety, on 9/11, so I harbor no innate anger toward Muslims, only toward Muslim terrorists. This book made me wonder about their dual allegiance in a way I had not wondered before, because she wants us to walk in her shoes but is not truly walking in ours. She is angry about the overreactions against Muslims but she should be far angrier about the behavior of the terrorists and less apt to point fingers at their accusers.
Muslims have not been feared for centuries in America. It only began when the Muslims declared war against America and the West. The author penned a book to give voice to her indignation about what she views as unjust treatment to the Muslims who are not terrorists, without offering any real solution to the problem of Muslim terrorism which is the real problem, rather than being Muslim in itself. The religion isn’t the problem, although she seems to have made it the focus of her book. The terrorism is the problem, and sadly, it is committed largely by Muslims. She ignores the anti-Semitic remarks and unfair treatment of Jews in every Arab country, Jews who also were forced from their homelands by Muslims, by Arabs, while she points out the offenses of Jews against Arabs. She makes extreme suppositions like America could turn against and intern Muslims, as they did the Japanese, forgetting that it was Jews who were enslaved historically, forced to convert, forced into ghettos, as a norm. When she compares Jews being blamed for the death of Jesus, she doesn’t explain that it took thousands of years for it to be corrected in some of the bibles, but it still is not forgiven by some; just read Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus”, to find where blame is still placed. An entire people has been blamed throughout history for the actions of a few, a few who were coerced into making their decisions by the Romans who ruled them. No one coerced the Muslims to fly into the Towers and it only just occurred. Healing takes time. America and all Americans need time to heal, Muslims are Americans too; they need to heal. Muslims were also killed by the terrorists.
When she supported Hillary Clinton’s supposition that riots were caused by a cartoonish video, (without directly saying Benghazi), I almost closed the book. That theory had holes in it from the beginning and has been completely disproven. It was a political attempt to protect President Obama and/or Hillary Clinton for fear of the effect on the coming election. I fear her book may exacerbate a situation already tenuous enough because of that blatant show of bias. The fear that Americans have of Muslims getting too involved in politics is only too real with the newly formed coalition of Muslim groups attempting to do just that, and some have terrorist ties. Empowering extremist groups is dangerous, trying to over-understand or over-excuse them is even more dangerous. I believe the author did not do justice to her subject. She oversimplified it. Rather than fully explain what it means to be a Muslim in America, rather than explaining how difficult it is to bring up her children in a world that is Islamophobic, even rightly so, she pointed fingers at those she accused of pointing fingers. Her foundation in her religion would seems to appear more powerful than she admits.
There are more Muslims than Jews in the world, and the number of extremist Muslims exceeds the entire number of Jews combined. Why did this book descend into Jews vs Muslims for me? Why did she make it a point to correlate the two religions while condemning the one to justify the other? Idlibi's analysis seemed naïve to me, perhaps a bit uninformed by design or by lack of information. She has idealistic expectations but no way to really realize them except to verbalize her hopes. She often used broad platitudes which were repetitive and merely reflected her philosophy, again without hope of achieving it on a broad scale. She said they have no pope, no one voice, so it is unlikely she can achieve her goal of bringing about a more comfortable view of Islam and its followers. Jews have no Pope either. Yet, we don’t need to have one to make our points. We allow controversy, disavowing that which is lacking in humanity.
The most poignant part of the book for me was a poem written by Idliby’s son Taymor, in which he declares himself to be simply “just like us” and that is what she is trying to convey with her book, that they are, indeed, just like us. It is a pity that she felt the need to point fingers at her detractors to do that, because that detracted from her message.
Personally, I reject orthodoxy because of the extremes, but my fellow Orthodox Jews do not set out to murder indiscriminately in order to bring Judaism to the rest of the world. With extremists who believe in Islam, that is what they do, and that is why it is difficult to come to terms with those who support it even when they condemn the radicalized.