In the last post, ReligionWriter was speaking with video and text blogger Amar Bakshi about the religious ideas he found while traveling in Britain.

In this segment, Bakshi shares the insights he gained as a roving blogger in Pakistan to explain why Osama bin Laden is so popular there, and how differing perceptions of his own religiosity affected his reporting.

ReligionWriter: A poll this month found that Osama bin Laden has a 46% approval rating in Pakistan, making him more popular than Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (38% approval rating among Pakistanis) and U.S. President Bush (9%.) To most Americans, those numbers for Bin Laden seem absolutely horrifying. What would you say to help Americans make sense of them?

Amar Bakshi: It’s surprisingly easy from a distance to separate human tragedy from political spectacle. Just as numbers of casualties can blur in the minds of people who are far away, so the human tragedy of 9/11 can blur for people who are far away, especially if they are spoken to in a certain way about it. I think very few Pakistanis actually advocate the suffering that 9/11 represented for Americans.

To some of the people I spoke with, Osama bin Laden represents slap in the face of U.S. power and prestige and invincibility. That as political gesture appeals to people who feel America has undermined their right to self-determination, their economic prosperity — whatever their grievance is.

In Pakistan, as in many countries besides the U.S., historical memory, and the mythologization of that memory, is very powerful; Pakistanis well-remember America’s involvement in the rule of [former military leader] Zia ul Haqq. Ironically, they are objecting to the radicalization of Islam and the loss of liberty that his rule entailed — in a convoluted way, that is associated with America in the minds of Pakistanis. There are similar analogies in Iran.

RW: Is anyone who supports Osama bin Laden necessarily a violent enemy of America? Is it possible to humanize that bin Laden supporter? Is there any common ground to work with?

Bakshi: The whole pursuit of “How The World Sees America” — and for some people, I’ve learned, my approach is quite controversial — is to humanize these guys. How are you going to say 46 percent of a country of 160 million are fundamental enemies? That’s ridiculous. If you go to other countries, the numbers are just as staggering, if not more so.

To make an enemy, in our minds, of 300 or 500 million dispersed people is ludicrous. So you’re going to have to humanize. I can see the headline: ‘Humanizing Bin Laden Lovers.” Put that way, you can just dismiss the idea, but that’s far too simplistic.

There is a huge spectrum of what that support actually means. Would any of these guys lay down their lives for him? If you ask that in a poll question, I don’t think the number would be high. So what does it mean to them to support someone like bin Laden? And what is it they are searching for? These types of questions usually have very personal answers. That’s very much what this project is about: what are those personal answers?

RW: Do you mean everyone has a story like “a CIA agent killed my brother?”

Bakshi: Each act that takes place affects 100 people around that act. Social networking thought might help here. When one person dies in Afghanistan, 100 people are vividly seared by that event, and that affect ripples outward. What look from here like small mistakes can multiple quite rapidly in people’s psyches. So, sure, “the CIA agent killed my brother” is not a very likely or common scenario, but one act can have more impact than you think.

Then, of course, anti-Americanism is very much exploited by political parties, by imams wanting more power or prestige, or in organizations where anti-Americanism is a way of expressing belonging. So you might start with a rational reason for disliking America — maybe a CIA agent really did kill your brother — but this drumming up of hype can quickly lead things to spiral into the irrational.

There are two things at work here. First, we have got to figure out what policies of ours might be dangerous for us in terms of perceptions in the long term. I think that’s an important consideration, and one that we can control. Then we have to see some things for what they are: for example, political infighting in which orthodox people attack moderates by claiming they are pro-America. Really that has nothing to do with America, it’s really about moderates and extremists battling each other within their own society.


RW: Tell us a little about your own religious and cultural background. What sort of Hinduism were you raised with?

Bakshi: I went to Episcopal school, St. Albans, where I was on the vestry. My mother is a spiritual woman, but no one in my family is particularly religious. To me, religion is a way of ordering your spirituality, of disciplining it. The idea is a certain practice gets your spirituality richer or better.

I have been free to dabble in a lot of different things and read a lot of books, both as literature and for teasing out how to live life. In terms of what practice I want to use to discipline my spirituality, I haven’t decided yet, but I’m not opposed to picking one eventually.

If anything, my family is Hindu, but there are Muslim influences as well, and of course I went to Christian school, and my mother tried to send me to Hebrew school -

RW: Hebrew school?

Bakshi: I was young, and at the time, my mother thought it was a just beautiful language, with beautiful stories, and she always dreamed of going to Jerusalem. She still does.

RW: You were born and raised in Washington D.C. Before you went to India for your blog, had you been to there before?

Bakshi: Growing up my mother never really wanted me to see India or learn Hindi. My parents had just recently migrated to the U.S., they were struggling to fit in, and my mother was fighting her own gender war to define herself as a physician, and she thought Indian culture didn’t help her in that. But when I was 15 I went back to India when my mother set up a local scholarship for a girl in Mysore, where she was from. I got really interested in local crafts people and set up something called Aina Arts, which links crafts people up with art markets.

RW: You are often mistaken for a Muslim. How has that experience affected you and your reporting?

Bakshi: One reason I don’t want to talk much about my religion online is that I love being mistaken for any number of things. In Latin America, I’m taken for Latin American. When I introduce myself to Muslims, I’m assumed to be Muslim, and Hindus assume I’m Hindu; I know enough about each to hold my own.

I go to a lot of Muslim services around the world, wherever I am. It’s a great way to connect and meet people, and I don’t feel badly doing it.

RW: You mean you would go to Friday prayer at a mosque and pray yourself? As part of your reporting for the blog?

Bakshi: Yes. (Laughs.) I have gone to Friday prayer and prayed, often out of sign of respect; I would be with a bunch of people who were going to pray, and it seemed rude to say, “I’ll wait outside.” In high school, I said the prayers every day, and I wasn’t Christian. I was head prefect of my school for a while, and at every ceremony I had to give a prayer, which I ended with “Amen.” One teacher told me it was just a sign of respect.

So that’s how I interpret it. [Blending in] helps me meet a lot of people, and I earn a lot of trust as a result of being ambiguous. I have no hesitation about that, because ultimately I think it’s foolish for there to be divides on the basis of religion, and I’m perfectly happy moving between them.

RW: So you go to a madrassa in South Asia and act like a Muslim, salaam aleikum and all that, and later they find out you’re not officially a Muslim: What happens next?

Bakshi: I never lie. If someone asks me “what are you,” I say exactly what I told you: my parents are Hindu but they are spiritual; I have devout Muslim and Sikh ancestors not that far back; I went to a Christian school, and basically I haven’t decided for myself yet.

I’ll be around the most hard-core Muslim guys you can imagine, and all they’ll say to me is:”Look, brother, this is not a good way to be, you have to choose.” They won’t say, “You snuck into our mosque, how dare you.” I’m happy to have them present to me the values they find in their faith. If anything, that’s when their passion really comes out.

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If you liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or any other novel strung poignantly between two continents, you’ll find much to like in Yamsin Crowther’s debut novel, The Saffron Kitchen, published several months ago by Penguin, which traces the bittersweet story of a young Iranian too headstrong for her own country.

Maryam Mazar, now a 60-something Iranian woman, was banished from her family as a young woman when her honor came into question. She lives a wistful, somewhat tortured life in England, married to a perfectly lovely man whose main fault, in her eyes, is that he is not Iranian. Because even though Maryam longed, as a young girl, to break free of the gossiping, watchful eyes in her upper class Iranian household, and to escape her father’s plan to marry her off, once thrown out into the world by her angry father, she spends her adult life looking over her shoulder, remembering especially the wide-open plains around her family’s farm in the plains of Khorasan.

When family tragedy forces Maryam to confront the painful past she’s long tried to bury, she finally returns to the simple village she loved so many decades ago — and finds there her earliest love, Ali, who was a servant to her father, a general in the Shah’s army. When Ali and Maryam were suspected, wrongly, of fornication, Ali was beaten savagely and exiled to this village where Maryam now returns. Maryam’s half-English, half-Iranian daughter, Sara, comes to visit Maryam there, and ask her what she intends to do with the waning years of her life: return to her frail but honest marriage in England or live a peasant’s life beside her long-lost love.

ReligionWriter won’t spoil the ending, but will instead call your attention to this fact: no ayatollahs or fissionable material darken the doorway of The Saffron Kitchen. Is this remarkable? At at time when many explanations of Islam focus on prayers and prophets, it might come a surprise to learn that for many people who happen to be Muslim, religion is music playing in the background.

In the climatic scene of the novel, for example, Maryam and her daughter Sara find themselves trapped by a snowstorm in an decrepit shrine, which is adorned with small fertility offerings. First of all: it snows in Iran? With so much mention of sand and palm trees in the war on terror, it’s almost refreshing to hear that Iran and the U.S. share a similar range of climates. And second: fertility offerings? Yes, in many countries, Iran included, Islam has been woven together with superstitions and remnants of other religions. In so many ways, religion is peripheral to the lives of the Crowther’s characters, and without the distractions of having to contemplate Islam-with-a-capital-I, the reader is free to taste and touch and smell rural Iran through the novel. In this way, The Saffron Kitchen fulfills the age-old promise of books: to transport you to another world.

And how could such a journey, literary or literal, save the world? According to Akbar Ahmed, a world-renowned Muslim scholar and author of the new book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, out this month from the Brookings Institution Press, there is a desperate need for Westerners and Muslims (and he freely admits these two categories are problematic) to understand each other. Ahmed, a Pakistani native, undertook a journey last year through Muslim lands in the Middle East and Asia, accompanied by several young research assistants. Their mission: to understand what Muslims abroad are thinking and feeling.

And while some of their findings were troubling — 75 percent of a classroom of “sweet, funny kids” in Jakarta named Osama bin Laden as a role model — Ahmed, a self-described optimist, chooses instead to focus on the positives: the warm hospitality of the people they met, the richness of the cultures they encountered, and — most of all — the capacity of even the most extreme ideologue to reverse course after friendly and reasoned discussion. Said Akbar at the Brookings Institution book release this month:

Ultimately, human beings to respond to emotion, to ideas of compassion and to ideas of friendship. I would urge you to look at the world through a slightly different lens.

Other guest speakers invited to the book launch, including Congressman Keith Ellison and the Moroccan ambassador to the U.S., Aziz Mekouar, suggested the need for more educational and cultural exchanges between Muslim countries and the United States. But compared to the expense and hassle of sending people to and fro, simply sitting down with a novel like The Saffron Kitchen while at the beach this summer might go a long way toward realizing Ahmed’s most profound conclusion: We’re all human.

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By Andrea Useem, Religion BookLine- Publishers Weekly, 5/30/2007 (reprinted here with permission.)

When most Americans look at Osama bin-Laden, they see a terrorist. Eboo Patel sees that and something more: To him, bin-Laden is a highly effective youth organizer.

“Al Qaeda has a phalanx of people who are focused on shaping the identities of young Muslims toward totalitarianism. Why don’t we have a phalanx of people shaping young Muslims toward pluralism?” asked Patel, a former Rhodes Scholar and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit that organizes young people of different religions around service projects.

In his new memoir, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon, July), Patel outlines his personal and intellectual crystallization around the idea of pluralism. “The most profound trend among Muslims in America today is the emergence of a civic Muslim identity based on a religious ethos,” Patel told RBL.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the son of Indian Muslim immigrants, Patel suffered from racist bullying and struggled to find his place as a “brown” minority in America. Patel writes that he was rescued from this identity limbo by a Y.W.C.A. camp, where he was encouraged to serve others and become a leader.

At college, he was drawn to the inspirational legacies of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and the Teach for America program, while discovering first hand that working side-by-side with people of different faiths was a great way to establish meaningful connections.

But in his book Patel casts a horrified glance at the story of Hasib Hussain, a shy Londoner who became one of the July 7 suicide bombers. Patel realizes that if radical preachers had reached him instead of the Y.W.C.A. counselors, his own story might have ended much differently.

How then to make pluralism “sexy” in the way jihadists have made totalitarian Islam attractive to young Muslims?

“I try to speak about pluralism in a way that gets deep into the soul. That’s one of the roles I can play: telling stories, starting with my own,” said Patel. Since he founded the Interfaith Youth Core seven years ago, the organization has now involved more than 10,000 young people around the world in its projects. “The goal is to build momentum to attract a large number of people and marginalize the extreme fringes.”

And is that ambitious goal attainable? Answering with optimism and determination, Patel said, “Scientifically, the bumblebee can’t fly. But look, it just flies.”

See also ReligionWriter’s earlier review of Patel’s book. 

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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press: July, 2007), is the memoir of Eboo Patel, a former

Rhodes scholar with a Ph.D. in religion from Oxford, is founder and director the Interfaith Youth Corps, a Chicago-based group aimed at creating a movement of religious young people, and an increasingly prominent public figure.

Why the Book is Notable: Though many academics have recent titles on American Islam (including Sherman Jackson and Haddad/Smith/Moore), as well as journalists (Paul Barrett, Geneive Abdo and Donna Gehrke White), American Muslims are themselves now filing this market niche, joining the ranks of editor Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, activist Asra Nomani and, most recently, ex-Muslim Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Good Parts: Describing the aspects of himself he saw in the young Muslims who bombed the London transit system in 2005 – anger at Muslim oppression around the world, a taste for risk-taking, an experience of white racism – Patel asks: “How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission and another ordinary young person’s commitment to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism?” His answer: Leadership.Young Muslims need visionary leaders who can make sense of modern Muslim identity and mobilize them for a vital cause.

Bad Parts: Patel’s memoir shares the same flaw for which he criticizes other interfaith events: it’s sometimes boring. “We were two twenty-somethings in

Chicago exploring spirituality, diversity, community and social justice,” he writes about himself and a friend. Patel also glosses over his peculiarity as an Ismaili Muslim: he strives to embody the “progressivism” of the Aga Khan, a spiritual leader that non-Ismaili Muslims would question. How far can Patel’s influence in the Muslim community spread? Finally, Patel doesn’t answer the central question: How to engage Muslim youth in a meaningful cause? While interfaith service projects are exciting for Patel, it’s hard to see how they might satisfy the longings of most Muslim youth.

Related Content: See journalistic coverage of radicalized youth after the

London bombings, including CNN’s documentary “The War Within.” The most recent and comprehensive study of religiosity among American teens is analyzed in the 2005 book, Soul Searching, by sociologist Christian Smith. See also theology professor Shabana Mir and Marcia Hermansen’s 2006 book chapter, “Identity Jihads: The Multiple Strivings of American Muslim Youth.”  For an interview with Eboo Patel, see Religion and Ethics Newsweekly’s April 13, 2007, episode.

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