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How Not to Discuss Islam By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard | Friday, March 23, 2007

These day, most everyone agrees that Americans need to develop a better understanding of Islam. They disagree, though, on how this understanding should be built. I've had ample opportunity to consider this question after the publication of My Year Inside Radical Islam, a book that details my time working for the U.S. headquarters of the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Wahhabi charity that has been named a specially-designated global terrorist entity. I became persuaded by Al Haramain's teachings while there, and adopted their views as my own. I decided to write this book because a large part of the global war on terror is ideological and I thought my narrative could help shed light on how people are drawn to extremist Islam. The book has generated discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims, many of which have been productive. Nonetheless, some of conversations are instead indicative of how one shouldn't talk about the subject. Most instructive is Holly Lebowitz Rossi's recent review in Slate, which engages in virtually all of the silly argumentative techniques that stifle serious discussion.

One technique used by people to disqualify those they disagree with from discussing Islam is the ideological pigeonholing of their adversaries. Rossi attempts this by claiming that I have become a "hero" to conservative media figures such as Michelle Malkin, Jamie Glazov, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sean Hannity. I'm not sure what hero status entails, but I've certainly reached out to conservatives. However Rossi fails to mention is that I have also made numerous appearances on NPR affiliates and progressive talk radio.

Indeed, since the publication of My Year Inside Radical Islam, I've made a point of reaching out not just to liberals and conservatives, but to the Muslim community too. Rossi's review hit Slate the day after I held a closed book talk for an exclusively Muslim audience and shortly before an extensive author interview appears on the Islamic website alt.muslim. None of this hindered Rossi's attempt to turn me into a conservative strawman.

A second technique used by those who want to paint their opponents as fools or bigots is universalizing observations. For example, those who try to portray Islam only in a good light will universalize any criticism of the Muslim community and claim that their opponents think all Muslims are radical. Conversely, those who only want bad things said about Islam mock positive comments as whitewashes.

In a neat trick, Rossi universalizes my book in both directions, claiming that it misrepresents both mainstream Islam and radical Islam, too. In this way, the book supposedly makes readers think that radical Islam isn't dangerous enough while also doing "a serious disservice to moderate and progressive Muslims, who are too often suspected of terrorist activities." Strangely, Rossi argues that I gloss over the serious danger of radical Islam because in my time at Al Haramain I did not come close to committing religious violence myself. Half of this criticism can immediately be dismissed: the notion that the book whitewashes radical Islam since I don't come that close to engaging in violence. Will people actually conclude after reading the book that there's no intersection between radical Islam and religious violence? Of course not: this criticism is absurd.

What of the disservice that my book supposedly does to moderate and progressive Muslims? This too is absurd. So much so, that one suspects it was simply a throwaway line meant as a sop to Slate's audience. Far from ignoring moderate and progressive Muslims, several appear as characters in my book. In fact, two such characters underscore Rossi's point that average, good-hearted Muslims are sometimes unfairly suspected of terrorist activities and sometimes end up on a flight watch lists despite their religious moderation.

Others, who are not quite as interested in scoring political points as Rossi, have read the book differently. For example, a positive review in Islamica Magazine, a journal of contemporary Muslim thought, observed that "[Gartenstein-Ross] reveals how ideologically vulnerable a convert can be; in that first flush of excitement and devotion, almost anyone claiming Islamic authority can dramatically imprint the convert's faith. . . . Gartenstein-Ross' book, if anything, should prod progressive-minded Muslims to think twice about abandoning their local mosques." Far from doing the "disservice" to moderate and progressive Muslims that Rossi claims, Islamica's review felt that my book was instructive for such individuals.

A third problem that impedes the discussion of Islam is the habit of writers giving pat answers to complex questions--and then claiming that their opponent is either bigoted or ignorant for not accepting these blanket answers. Unfortunately, Rossi does this too, by claiming that I conflate theological conservatism and radicalism.

It is true that, in my book, I do not step back from the narrative arc of my journey to distinguish for the reader which theological points are radical and which are merely conservative. There was a reason for this, which other, more nuanced reviewers picked up on: The Islamica review notes that while there is a line between "harmless conservatism and violent radicalism," that line is "not always clear." This is particularly so when you are trying to find your path within the faith, rather than studying it from a comfortable distance. As a young convert, I was bombarded by conservative and radical ideas simultaneously. My book's narrative reflects that reality.

At the end of the day, it seems that Rossi doesn't actually dislike my book much, on the merits. Instead, she is upset by three things: its title, the fact that the book is popular with a conservative audience, and the way that some conservative commentators have framed the discussion about the book.

Discussions about Islam must be rooted in integrity. There are many hard questions worth asking about Islam in the United States, and in the world. There are hard questions to ask about the way Islam is practiced. There are also hard questions to ask about whether Muslims are treated fairly and whether the media depicts Islam objectively. It is critical to approach these questions honestly and with open eyes. Unfortunately, some people--on the left and right, Muslim and non-Muslim--are interested less in intellectual integrity than in controlling the politics of the debate.

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