Amir Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who will deliver a lecture on the topic of Muslims in America Thursday at Baylor University, last week discussed with the Tribune-Herald his new book, “Muslims and the Making of America,” published recently by Baylor Press.
In both his book and in person, Hussain remains optimistic about the future, even amid increasing hostility toward Muslims by some in American society as well as in the federal government: “I have great hope in the American people. We have stereotypes about Islam and Muslim terrorists — including home-grown Muslim terrorists — who have killed innocent people, including innocent Americans.
“But Muslims, sadly, are not unique in that. The difference is that when Dylann Roof kills nine [black] people, we know that although he believes in white supremacy and murders innocent people for his beliefs, his view is not shared by other white people. Or that when Christians in Rwanda murder 800,000 people in the Rwandan genocide, they are not representative of other Christians.”
An adviser for the TV series “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman,” Hussain will speak at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the McClinton Auditorium (Room 240) at Baylor’s Paul L. Foster Campus for Business and Innovation, then will sign copies of his book afterward. His interview with the Trib was conducted between his travels during spring break:
Q Baylor isn’t the first publisher that comes to mind for a book about “Muslims and the Making of America.” How did you and Baylor Press come together on this project?
A I have known Dr. Carey Newman, the publisher of Baylor University Press, for years, since he did the magisterial book with one of my teachers, Peter Richardson, “Building Jewish in the Roman East.” Carey came to me to do a book with them and “Muslims and the Making of America” is the result. And I think Baylor can reach the people who need to read the book and understand the realities of Muslim contributions to America. The presidential election showed us the difference between red states and blue states. I live in one of the bluest places, Los Angeles. I’m counting on Baylor to reach out to folks in the red states.
Q This is a surprising book for me. The thing that most struck me is how you highlighted Muslim contributions to America in terms of music such as rap, jazz and hip hop as well as athletics such as boxing and basketball. At least a good part of your book is focused on figures and accomplishments in these areas. Why these as opposed to more conventional history?
A There are lots of really good histories of Muslims in America. I wanted to write something that people would pick up and read and, exactly as you were, be surprised. It seems strange to say, but in a time where Islamophobia has become the norm, we need to show American Muslims as human beings. I think the popular culture references are crucial for this.
Q I’m not sure it was intentional, but two figures in the book form an interesting contrast in the realm of athletics: the often cerebral, nuanced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the sometimes combative, provocative Muhammad Ali. I know they weren’t in the same athletic discipline but they struck me as the yin and yang in your argument. Am I reading too much into it?
A No, I think your reading is correct. Kareem is an intellectual. He’s written more books than many athletes have read. But he was also a great athlete. Ali was, in my opinion, the greatest athlete of all time. Certainly the greatest athlete I have seen in over 50-plus years on this earth. Kareem was quiet, Ali not so much.
Q Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is a talented and insightful writer. You also reveal in your book a fascination for the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, to whom you dedicate the book along with Muhammad Ali. You acknowledge his influence on 20th century music in a big way, but why is he so important in terms of Muslims in America? I mean, at one point you note he certainly was lapsed in some of his personal habits, ones you might think his faith might restrain and shape.
A I think that’s one of the keys to the book. That American Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. Not all of us are “true believers.” We know that about our tradition. Who [among Christians] goes to church once a week and who goes at Christmas and Easter? It’s the same for Muslims. We observe our Islam in a number of different ways. And I think Ertegun is crucial to understanding America. The music that Atlantic Records put out helped to define who we are as a people. I think — for example with the Nobel Prize given to Bob Dylan — that we are paying more attention to the role of popular music. And American Muslims have had a role in American popular music. And none is more important than Ahmet Ertegun.
Q Who is this book aimed at? The young? The scholarly? The casual reader? This is a horrible question to ask any author or creative personality, but is there a point you’re trying to ensure readers take away with them?
A The book is pitched to a general audience. I hope it gets read widely by people who want to learn about Muslims in America. I’ve written lots of technical, scholarly pieces. Those are great, but the average person doesn’t read them or have any idea where to find them. This is written for someone who wants to understand the place of Muslims in America but doesn’t want to read a 600-page book with hundreds of footnotes. I’ve been working on and teaching about American Muslims for 20 years now. So I think the scholarship shows through but without the technical apparatus that the ordinary reader doesn’t need or value.
Q You dwell on some of the principles and colorful leadership of the Nation of Islam, which you stress as a distinctly American movement. You note that it taught many African Americans pride and integrity in what they do and how they live — but at the same time it stressed that whites were devils. Do you see its role growing or dwindling?
A It’s important to mention that the teachings of the Nation of Islam changed over time. Also, it is now a very small group. There are now 1.5 to 2 million African-American Muslims and maybe 30,000 members of the Nation of Islam. But we see its influence in groups like Black Lives Matter.
Q A good friend of mine who is a devout Muslim, helps in leadership at a local mosque and teaches at Texas A&M blames many Muslim scholars and clerics for failing to correct the image of Islam at a time when radical Islam is making a horrific impression on so many Americans. Is he right? Should Muslim scholars be more outspoken in setting the record straight?
A I think there’s a bit of truth to that. If by scholars you mean American Muslim academics, we’ve been doing that for years, people like me, Kecia Ali, Ebrahim Moosa, Omid Safi, Reza Aslan, Sherman Jackson, Aminah McCloud, etc. If by scholars you mean religious professionals, imams, then we do have some work to do. I think Muslim mosques are just now beginning to spread out from places of congregational prayers to places where we take ideas seriously, have adult education nights, etc. But of course there’s always the idea that conflict sells, so 1,000 people doing something peaceful may not make the news.
Q I read a thoughtful but forceful essay in the Wall Street Journal about a year ago by a Muslim thinker who said the Muslim faith, at least in some corners of the world, needs to become more secularized in the way that Christianity did in the West over time. I mean, he was inveighing against the religion’s rough edges, things that are not anymore practical in our times than certain aspects of the Old Testament are today.
A And Muslims have done this. So the Quran never forbids slavery — neither does the Bible, but that’s another story — but Muslims have abolished slavery. Muslim feminists for at least 25 years in America have been rethinking issues around women and gender. About 40 percent of American Muslims support same-sex marriage.
Q Baylor Law School once a year offers free, one-hour courses for everyday folks in an array of subjects. The last couple of years it’s offered among other things a course in Sharia law, which law professor Jeremy Counseller says is no more threatening or pervasive than, say, Jewish law is when it’s embraced by American Jews who want to practice certain ways in their faith. Is that a fair take?
A I think that’s a great take. For the average Muslim in the United States, Sharia means how and when you say your prayers, when and how long you fast, how much and to whom you give in charity, etc. It’s about living out your religious life — not trying to change American law.
Q I know you’re traveling this spring break. With a name like Hussain, do you find travel more difficult now than in the past? Or has it been an awkward experience for a good while now?
A I have Global Entry, so coming back to the United States hasn’t been an issue. And it shouldn’t be, since I am a “trusted traveler” and a U.S. citizen. But some folks do look at my name or ask what I do. And I travel enough that at certain airports, I know some of the TSA agents. That said, I also often do get more than my fair share of, er, random checks. But the people I’ve interacted with have behaved professionally and I know they are trying to keep us safe, so I appreciate that.
Q Some Americans insist that Muslims in America have not gained complete acceptance because of their supposed refusal to melt into American society. Others say that talk radio and pandering politicians and warfare and terrorism aren’t really giving them much of a chance to assimilate. If the rest of us could take away some truth about Muslims in America in the 21st century, what would it be?
A The Pew Forum polls of the past few years show that the majority of Muslims in America want to assimilate into American culture. Some don’t, of course, but that’s the same with any ethnic or religious group. I think the takeaway is very simple. American Muslims are good Americans. They are as wealthy and as educated as any other American community. We are an American success story. But it’s precisely because so many of us are so ordinary that we don’t stand out.
Q I find authors sometimes kick themselves about leaving something out of their books and wishing they hadn’t. Sometimes events leave an author wishing he or she could put one more thing in it. If you could add anything to the book, what would it be? Certainly events in America once more have Muslims in sharp focus.
A Oh, sure, part of that is time. The book was written before the presidential election and things have changed with President Trump and the travel bans. I would have liked to go into a little more detail perhaps, tell a few more stories. Analyze, for example, more of the Muslim lyrics in hip hop songs, and how Muslims express their religious truths in this particular medium.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.