Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“Journey into America”- The Challenge of Islam

I want to take a moment to share my thoughts (humbly) on this unique and ground breaking book, just released in July.  If you are reading this blog (I’m honored), stop whatever it is your doing and enlighten yourself with the first “good read” for all who desire understanding and acceptance of society, faith, and culture in the beautiful U.S.A.  After reading this I truly felt “proud to be an American” as well as a sense of pride in my faith of Islam (if the two could ever be bridged).  As a matter of fact that’s what this journey is all about, bridges…

Check out Ambassador Akbar Ahmed talking about his new book, "Journey into America" on The Daily Show!

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I was lucky enough to be involved in this “Journey into America” when my dear friend Elif Kavakci (blog: HijabiTopia) invited me to photograph for an interview she was doing for Turkish publication, Zaman News. The article featured an America girl who was on an anthropological study of Muslims in America and also life in Muslim countries. 3Hailey was her name, and the curious tendencies of human beings are her game.  Hailey is a star pupil of the famed Professor\Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, of the American University in Cairo, and traveled with him and the rest of their group across several Muslim countries and then across her own homeland here in America. 

Elif Kavakci interviews Hailey Woldt

After photographing Hailey for Elif’s article, I was invited for dinner at the Kavakci home, where Hailey in turn would like to study into my own humble brain for the secret life of an American convert to Islam.  The Professor also attended and it was truly an inspiring evening to top all dinner invitations (in my book). 
Elif Kavakci, Hailey Woldt, Nicole Queen

The next day I met Hailey and Elif and the Professor, along with another star student manning a small camera, at a high end mall in Dallas.  Hailey wanted to perform a sort of anthropology experiment where the three of us would dress in all black conservative garments, looking like what most Americans view as extreme Muslims, with simple black scarves around our hair, and heavy black abaya’s.  This was an experiment she had tried before in a small town on her own (braver than me!) and was able to see a lot of shocked reactions from people, based on merely her clothing.  Honestly, I told Hailey “Hey this is Dallas, people aren’t shocked to see Muslims shopping in the mall, the mall is always full of Muslim women blissfully shopping. Elif and I only know this because it’s what we have heard…LOL”.  We continued on anyway just to see if we could catch a few uncomfortable glances from passersby, curious at our choice of garments.  Later that day I met with Hailey at the hotel they were staying at nearby and we engaged in conversation on camera, for their documentary, “Journey into America”. Which later, was further inscribed into the pages of this challenging novel, “Journey into America-The Challenge of Islam”
I’m not going to spoil it but this book is not your “run of the mill” political or social writings…

“Professor Akbar Ahmed turns his intrepid approach to cultural dialogue and inter-faith understanding onto American society, in this brilliant follow-up to “Journey into Islam”. His insights should be required reading for anyone grappling with national security, national identity and national cohesion in today’s complex era.” Colonel David Kilcullen, author of Washington PostBestseller and Economist Book of the Year, The Accidental Guerrilla
“I have not read a work as insightful, erudite, and innovative on the challenge of American identity since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Akbar Ahmed sets a new paradigm in the ongoing debate on defining American identity.” Melody Fox, Berkley Center at Georgetown University

  In this book, you will follow the adventures of a group of enlightening students, as they themselves discover what it’s like to be a Muslim in the U.S., post 9\11. You had me at Chapter 1…it’s exciting right off the bat.  Un-Expectantly adventurous and even a little frightening, but only enough to keep you wanting more.  Here is a small preview:
Muslim Odyssey
"I had walked into an ambush. An aggressive sniper was positioned directly in front of me, with two equally effective sharp-shooters to my left and the obvious leader of the group facing me from the back row. Having been in charge of some of the most battle-hardened tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I knew something about war tactics.  One lesson I had learned was to keep cool under fire.”
Showdown in a Mosque
“Where does one begin a search for American identity and it’s Muslim component?  The answer seemed obvious: in the nation’s heartland.  But what could be learned about America’s founding principles of freedom of speech and religious tolerance in a nondescript, almost shabby mosque in Omaha, Nebraska, where I now was?  Especially in the midst of a verbal ambush by an African American man wearing a typical Arab red-and-white checkered headdress, or kufiya, who looked as if he had come straight out of an orthodox mosque in Saudi Arabia.
Hearing my call for interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians, the man stood up in a startling breach of mosque-not to mention Muslim- etiquette to challenge my interpretation of Islam.  “Good Muslims” could not talk to nonbelievers, he almost shouted.  The salvos continued, despite my well-founded explanation: Muhammad, the holy Prophet of Islam, had himself paved the way for such dialogue.  He had urged Muslims persecuted in Mecca to migrate to Abyssinia, a Christian country, because he anticipated they would be well received there once the natives of that land had met them and learned about Islam.  But, the man in Arab headdress snapped back, the Prophet had really intended those Muslims to convert the Abyssinians by force.”
“The next day the team interviewed people about Omaha’s Islamic center and community.  The four who had challenged me, they learned, had posted a fatwa (pronouncement) in the mosque before 9\11 calling for the killings of Jews and Christians and praising the deeds of Osama bin Laden. All four were converts to what is known as Salafi Islam, in the United States, a fundamentalist version of the faith influenced by Saudi Arabia. It purports to be an unadulterated and “pure” form of Islam that is incompatible with any modern Western ideas.”

I was honored to discover that excerpts from my interview with Hailey are featured in such an amazing collection of societal history.  I would have never had the pleasure of meeting Hailey and the Professor if it wasn’t for the selfless act of my dear friend Elif, mentioning to the group that I was also an American who had become Muslim…and that I had a story to tell.  I learn on a daily basis what true friendship actually means, it’s an ever changing definition, and one of my favorite addendums is “A real friend is excited to promote the smallest attributes in their close friends, even placing them before their own much more grand achievements.”  I thank God every day for my new “Friendship Philanthropists”, without I might have never seen it’s true meaning.  Below are a few passages from my feeble attempt at sharing something in this amazing book.  Once again I am so thankful to my dear friend for opening the door to conversation with Professor Ahmed and his star pupil Hailey.  Thank you to the Professor for hearing my words and illuminating them with such understanding and clarity.

Muslim Converts:  Shame and Honor in a Time of Excess
“Religious Conversion is a dramatic event in anyone’s life, no less than it was for Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.  It changes everything. Fashion photographer Nicole Queen of Dallas had arrived at just such a turning point, paradoxically, at the pinnacle of her career. She was standing next to Justin Timberlake, one of pop music’s icons, with cameras flashing.  The glare seemed to illuminate the world of vacuous celebrity that Nicole was part of.  Wasn’t there more to life than this?  At the suggestion of a Muslim friend, she watched motivational videos on YouTube and was impressed by Yusuf Estes, a white Muslim convert from Texas who was once a member of the Disciples of Christ Church.  Shortly after, Nicole converted to Islam.
“One of the reasons for her conversion, Nicole explained, was the excessive behavior of women who appeared to be without shame or modesty, especially in front of a camera: “Girls took off their tops, exposed their breasts, they were making out with each other-and they aren’t lesbians, but if a camera’s there "I’ll do it if you put it on TV.”…Do you think their parents are proud of that?…They want to show that stuff because that’s what people want to see.  How low can a girl go?  That’s what sells here.  They know what everybody likes; everybody likes to see the lowest point that someone can go.  People just want to make a dollar out of it; these are the morals of our nation, whether we want to face that or not.”
“For Nicole, conversion to Islam allows her to reaffirm her American identity. Once the heat and noise subside, it is American converts like her who can play an effective role in interpreting mainstream Americans and Muslims to each other.  By doing so, they are ideally placed to counteract the idea of a clash between the two.”
Reading this treasure takes you on an indescribable journey that truly awakens your mind, clears out cluttered thoughts, and focuses much needed attention on the gripping relationship of Americans and Muslims.  I truly home you will embark on this contribution to the vibrancy of American Islam.

Click below to get your copy of:

“Journey into America-The Challenge of Islam”


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