ISLAM IN URBAN AMERICA: Sunni Muslims in Chicago.

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Sunni Muslims in Chicago. 
By Garbi Schmidt. Temple Univ. Press. 242 pp. $64.50 (hardcover), $22.95 (paper)

Perhaps seven million strong, the Muslim population of the United States continues to mystify most Americans, a situation that fuels prejudice on the part of non-Muslims and fear of marginalization on the part of Muslims. Any study of the group is therefore welcome. Garbi Schmidt, a senior researcher at the Danish National Institute for Social Research in Copenhagen, spent a year and a half in the 1990s doing fieldwork among Muslims in Chicago. She has produced a straightforward, low-key account, with no grand theoretical frame. Readers must come to their own conclusions—a sensible approach in the current climate.

Looking at Islam through the microcosm of the Chicago community, Schmidt considers two related questions: After a century-long encounter with America and with American religion, is Islam simply a temporary transplant that will never take root? And do Muslim Americans constitute a single community? These questions are central to the future of Muslims in America. If Islam becomes deeply woven into the nation’s religious fabric, Muslim Americans will gain public acceptance and a big stake in the country’s future. And if Muslims establish themselves as a unified voice in American society, then, given their potential numbers plus their economic and educational assets, they may make a substantial impact at many levels.

As Schmidt suggests, the blending of Islam with contemporary American life today is especially significant. When I visited the Averroes Academy, a Muslim school in Chicago, I saw children learning about computers as well as Islam. The girls wore traditional Islamic dress, but the boys wore ties. The multinational background of the community impressed me, too: There were Muslims from Bosnia and the United States as well as India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in South Asia. Indeed, more than 400 people from nearly every ethnic background in Chicago, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, attended the academy’s annual dinner.

But the cultural integration is far from complete. Schmidt reports that in 1997 and 1998 the FBI questioned and, by some accounts, harassed Arab Muslims in Chicago about their alleged affiliation with the Palestinian-Islamist movement Hamas. “Fed­eral investigations fueled mistrust and feelings of social exclusion, especially because most of the community tended to see the investigations solely as products of prejudice,” writes Schmidt. “Although the FBI may have had serving American interests as its goal, one consequence of its actions was that an entire community found itself intimidated, misrepresented, and isolated.” And this was before September 11. Schmidt’s solid study is a laudable step toward ensuring that such misunderstandings do not recur.

—Akbar S. Ahmed


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