Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America

Image of Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America
Release Date: 
January 7, 2014
Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed by: 

This autobiographical book, an assertive explanation of Islam, will clarify Muslim beliefs for many readers.

Its overarching point and main contribution is that there are "many Islams" in which different groups accept different aspects of the Muslim code, from modern liberal all the way back to seventh-century conservative.

Ranya Idliby, an American with roots among Palestine and the Palestinians, sees the Islamic terrorists as an outgrowth of the latter set of beliefs and bemoans Americans' conflation of their stance with all of Islam.

Many of Ms. Idliby's other views are less logical and helpful than this explanation. She is at pains to show her family as pursuing typical American activities: her son playing baseball, her mother baking apple pies with the Better Crocker cookbook, her whole family celebrating Christmas around a decorated tree. But her main activity appears to be instilling in her children the notion that they are Muslim.

Ms. Idliby admits that she was fascinated with the idea of God and religious beliefs since the age of eight. The only God available to her was the Muslim God, so she became religious in the Islamic faith. Now, telling her children that they are Muslim, long before they are of an age to understand what making such a faith commitment means, comes naturally to her. She appears to view being Muslim as an ethnicity.

In the United States, we do not tell our children that they are Lutheran Americans or Episcopal Americans or Baptist Americans, but Ms. Idliby has no hesitation in telling her children--and us—that they are Muslim Americans, whereas it would be more accurate for her to tell them that they are half Syrian American (on their father's side) and half Palestinian American (on their mother's).

The children, accepting the notion that "Muslim" is an ethnicity, feel it as a burden, with a necessity to defend Islam against critics as best they can, so her son must object to being called a "terrorist" at school and writes Muslim symbols on his school papers, while her daughter "feels weird" among those of other faiths in her class and wonders if, when she grows up, she would be able to marry a Jew.

Ms. Idliby could have given her children some background in Syrian history and Palestinian history so that she would understand their heritage. Instead, the only background she gives them is her understanding of Islam, not to tell them that she is Muslim, but to tell them that they are Muslim.

Ms. Idliby claims she is "careful not to demand" that her children "persevere" as Muslims, since ultimately, "the choice of faith and identity must be theirs." Meanwhile, however, she is telling them as a fact that they are Muslims.

After 9/11 in particular, American Muslims faced all kinds of discrimination and became what Idliby terms "lesser Americans," those not wholly accepted in their own country. She points out that because the Islamic religion comes in a great variety of types. Liberal Muslims drink alcohol, marry only one spouse, and participate peacefully in modern life, while those in some other countries pick out from the Quran the most outdated seventh-century rules and use them to oppress women, pray five times a day facing Mecca, hate American values, and are determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

She omits to point out, however, that just as conservative Muslims pick out the conservative rules of the Quran to believe and teach, the liberal Muslims pick out only the most modern rules to accept. They are as guilty of "cherry-picking" from the Quran as are the terrorists.

Ms. Idliby identifies with modern Islam and its traditional respect for knowledge, its ecumenical viewpoint embracing both Judaism and Christianity as part of its belief code, and its devotion to God (she avoids use of the term "Allah").

More conservative and traditional views are found outside the U.S.A. One rule used in some Muslim countries to keep women in the lowest possible position is the requirement to use a head scarf, or to veil themselves, or even to dress in the burqa, the tentlike black garment that covers everything but the eyes.

Although the Quran doesn't even mention this costume, it is required in the same countries that sanction wife-beating, honor killings, child brides, and polygamy, all of which are generally considered outdated in the rest of the world. Since 9/11, the wearing of garments that hide a woman in its folds has actually increased. Is this increase to be interpreted as support for what the terrorists accomplished? Ms. Idliby doesn't say.

But she defends women's confinement to such coverings, claiming that in some cases it can be ascribed to the woman's own sense of modesty and self-discipline. There can be no doubt, however, that being cloaked and hidden in their own clothing can hardly increase women's self-esteem and will never aid them in approaching equality with men.

Ultimately, with this book Ms. Idliby is setting up her own version of Islam. She claims, through her personal theology, to know what God is all about.

"God," she says, "is politically omnipresent, current and relevant." She also believes the Muslim adage that "God is beautiful and loves beauty." We humans, she declares, "share God's one absolute universal truth," although she omits to name it.

Actually, we don't all share an understanding of God. About 12 percent of Americans are atheists who believe that humans must solve their own problems, that we have no access to any superhuman being who is going to protect us from our flaws, weakness, and stupid mistakes.

To understand Islam it will be necessary to read widely about the various versions and where they are practiced, but this book, despite its limitations, is a good place to start, if only to learn that the Islam we learn about one day may differ entirely from the one we comprehend the next day.