Muslim Convert Chronicles Contradictions In The Faith
JACKI LYDEN, host:
I'm Jacki Lyden. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, are video game enthusiasts on your last minute shopping list? We'll have some recommendations for the year's best games.
But first, an exploration of Islam through the eyes of a convert. The man who would become Michael Muhammad Knight grew up in an Irish Catholic family in upstate New York. At the age of 13, Michael Knight first became interested in Islam after listening to songs like Public Enemy's �Party for Your Right To Fight� with lyrics that referenced African-American Muslim leader Malcolm X.
(Soundbite of song, �Party For Your Right To Fight�)
PUBLIC ENEMY (Band): (Singing) J. Edgar Hoover, and he could've proved to you, he had King and X set up, also the party with Newton, Cleaver and Seale, he ended, so get up, time to get 'em back.
LYDEN: Knight says after listening to Public Enemy's music, he felt compelled to study Islam. By age 17, he converted to the faith, even traveling to Islamabad, Pakistan, to study Islam.
In the 15 years since then, Michael Muhammad Knight has explored his faith through a series of books including the acclaimed novel, �The Taqwacores.� Now, Knight has a non-fiction book �Journey to the End of Islam.� It's an account of his travels to Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia to reconcile many of the inherent contradictions he finds in the larger Islamic tradition.
I'm joined now by Michael Muhammad Knight. He comes to us from the studios of Harvard University, where he's a graduate student in Islamic Studies. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. MICHAEL MUHAMMAD KNIGHT (Author, �Journey to the End of Islam�): Thanks for having me.
LYDEN: Well, I'd like to start back when you converted to Islam. It's a decision that you revisit in your latest book because you write about your return to Pakistan. On page 87, you say: I knew that I was a Muslim. Religion is like an art gallery. One painting will speak to you more than another and there's no need to explain or defend your taste. And yet, Michael, this book, in many ways, explains exactly that. Talk about why Islam called to you as it did?
Mr. KNIGHT: Well, I think when I was 15 years old, I needed something to completely tear down the world that I knew. Islam seemed to be such a critique of everything that I knew. And again, this is just, you know, Islam the way it was presented to me, which was very much connected to American history. You know, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, identifying with the song was a way for me to distance myself from the racist white kids in my high school or Catholic Church that said nothing to me at that point in my life.
Even, you know, I love them, but my grandfather who said his morning prayers everyday, his Catholic prayers, and put out a flag every morning, I needed to tear all that down and build up a new world for myself.
LYDEN: Why was it so long before you returned to Pakistan and this journey that you take us on, which starts there? What happened in the interim?
Mr. KNIGHT: Well, in the years after I converted to Islam and kind of burned out on the demands of organized religion, you know, I ended up - this is a whole other story, but I ended up connected to this whole Muslim punk rock world. And that ended up being my portal, not only back into Islam after I thought I could no longer identify as a Muslim, but it was also my portal back to Pakistan because some friends of mine returned to Pakistan and they wanted to start punk rock there. And so, you know, just the fact that I had friends there, it was an invitation for me to go back and revisit my earlier experience in Pakistan.
LYDEN: Now, that's where this book, �Journey to the End OF Islam� opens. And I have to say, it's not the Pakistan that I have visited or the place I know. First of all, as a male, you're able to go a lot of places a woman can't. But also, you're with this punk rock band, and everybody is kind of interpreting Islam in a way that makes sense to them. And you're coming up against any number of people who do disagree, but who are also pretty liberal.
Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. And I mean, the first time I went to Pakistan, I was in such a sheltered Wahabi bubble that I didn't know this side of Pakistan existed or could exist. I didn't know about Sufism. I didn't know about Shias.
LYDEN: And you're talking about the mystic tradition. You're also talking about the historic split between Shia and Sunni Islam.
Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah. Basically, everything in Pakistan's Islam that didn't conform to a Saudi interpretation of Islam was shielded from me. So, I didn't know that the people were doing drugs in Pakistan, let alone that they can contextualize in an Islamic way. You know, I didn't know that every Thursday night, you can go to these Sufi shrines and people were banging on drums and singing, and there were actually women present there. I had no idea of any of that. I had no exposure to those things. So, the second time I went to Pakistan it was my chance to really see the real Islam of Pakistan, which involved all of those things.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Michael Muhammad Knight, author of the book, �Journey to the End of Islam.� When you were there, there's a lot of - or at least a couple of women in your group, and you write about a number of traditions in Islam that do concern you. And one of them being the treatment of women. And you've taken part in the women led prayer movement.
This again, I thought, was an interesting interception between your experience and what can be practiced traditionally. You mentioned, Saudi and women's inequity in many, many Islamic countries.
Mr. KNIGHT: Well, you know, most Muslims, the whole tradition essentially says that women cannot lead men in prayer. And to me, you know, understanding Islam in the culture that I'm coming from, that's not acceptable. You know, I think that in America, ritual equality is going to be a big deal. And as every culture translates Islam into its own values, you know, Pakistani Islam is very Pakistani and Iranian Islam is very Iranian. American Islam will end up being very American.
LYDEN: You said that America is actually a very good place to be a Muslim.
Mr. KNIGHT: I feel it's kind of a sellout and like the Muslim equivalent of an Uncle Tom for saying that, but honestly it's true.
LYDEN: What do you mean by that?
Mr. KNIGHT: It's not the time to really be, you know, flag waiving Muslim, you know what I mean? Time is a little hard. But honestly, I believe that America is the best place for a Muslim today because the ways that I have explored Islam could only happen in the United States, really.
In Manhattan alone, you know, there's a Sufi order that I can go to. There is the five percenters that I hangout with. There are Shias, there are Sunnis, and I can take something from all of those and build up my own identity out of that. Whereas in Saudi Arabia, if you're a Shia, you can't go out on the street corner and sell your books. That's against the law. If you're in Pakistan, and you're an Ahmadi, it's illegal for you to say that you're a Muslim because Ahmadis are persecuted minority there.
LYDEN: And again, these are different offshoots of the central faith, different interpretations.
Mr. KNIGHT: Yes. Anywhere that Islam is so connected to political power, it's going to be political power that defines the religion. And in America with Islam so removed from political power, we have a chance to build it for ourselves. So, yeah, I very much believe that America, in a weird way - it's hard to say this because of America's foreign policy and stuff like that, but I believe that on some level, America can save Islam.
LYDEN: You find Islam, in some ways, to be in Congress with some of the suicidal forces in places like Pakistan and, at one point, you remark that you find Pakistan to be a white supremacist country, I'm quoting you.
Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah.
LYDEN: I'm wondering if you would please read a little bit from your book.
Mr. KNIGHT: When Pakistan was a little boy, the British Empire put the fear in him. Now, that he's a grown nation, he still fears and loves the devil, and the devil has him eating the wrong food. The kind of realization that dawns on you in McDonald's. Fast food in Lahore caters for the upper class. A foot long sandwich at Subway costs 400 rupees. The daily wage for a driver is much more expensive than a superior Pakistani food you can get on the street.
The billboards, movies, and music videos all speak to the fantasy life of the westernized upper class, which seems embarrassed by the rest of Pakistan. Clothing stores at the fortress malls sell fashions that no women could wear in public, only rich girls behind closed doors when they dance to American music and do coke and hook-up in secret mansion parties.
Radical Islam or Islamism or the best one, Islamofascism, almost appear logical as a knee-jerk reaction to all of this. An extreme patriotism has risen from the confusion of kids who buy up culture from a country that they assume will some day bomb them. That's why everyone loves white Muslims, and not just any Bosnian, Albanian, Chechen, but the especially rare white convert, the one who really comes from the other side.
Here's a blue-eyed American who buys up your culture, who wants what you have, coming from the land of blue jeans and John Cena and going back with a bag full of religious trinkets. Denzel couldn't be a movie star here, I said to H, who's name I censored in the book, (unintelligible) journalist friend. H thought about it and countered he could be a villain.
LYDEN: And what you're talking about is the color observation in Pakistan.
Mr. KNIGHT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, walking down the street, like, you see brown people and you see black people, but looking up at the billboards, you see white people. Looking at political posters, you see white people.
LYDEN: You know, when you were a young man, you converted to Islam and traveled to Pakistan in a very young age. Now, this is 15 years ago, seems like a lifetime ago, actually these days all pre-9/11, although it is post the first Gulf War. I want to ask you what you make of these young men who've recently traveled to Pakistan and Somalia. Do you have any insight about what draws young people who may have run up here or come over here from countries at an early age so deeply into this hard-line interpretation of a religious movement, who sees America as a target?
Mr. KNIGHT: You know, I can only really speak to my own experience. I mean, there was a time when I wanted to go to war in Chechnya.
LYDEN: What changed your mind?
Mr. KNIGHT: I was actually talked out of it by the Muslims there.
LYDEN: This is back in 1994?
Mr. KNIGHT: In '94, yeah. And I also had an opportunity to go to Palestine with someone who probably would've ended up strapping dynamite to my chest. And it was the Muslims around me who I looked to as mentors and big-brother figures and even father figures, who said, no, don't - there's nothing good for you there. You'll end up in a ditch. You'll end up blown up.
They actually said I would do more good as a writer, which makes me wonder what they would think now. They probably wish I ended up in a ditch, but Allah knows.
LYDEN: Thinking about some of the liberties you've portrayed. You're also now a master's student at Harvard. Do you think there are strands of Islam, from what you've seen, that do lead to extremism?
Mr. KNIGHT: There are strands of any religion that leads to extremism. I mean, there's Christians who shoot abortion doctors and they justify that with their Christianity. And there are Hindu nationalists who are talking about genocide in India of Muslims, and they justify that with a particular reading of Hinduism. So, you know, there's no essential good or bad Islam.
LYDEN: Well, your book is called "Journey to the End of Islam," and I'm sure you can guess what's coming. You do go to Mecca at the end of your journey and make the pilgrimage, but what are you saying is the end of Islam?
Mr. KNIGHT: Well, it wasn't the end of the historical phenomenon of Islam, and it wasn't the end of my relationship to it because I identify as a Muslim. But it was the end of my being able to define Islam because I was traveling around the world trying to find some consistency to my religion. And when I was in Pakistan, Islam looked very Hindu at times. And in Syria, Islam looked very Biblical in terms of the stories and the symbols and what shaped the religious experience there. And in America, you know, I have such an eclectic collection of ingredients that make up my Islam that it looks like no other Islam anywhere else in the world.
So you know, we have a lot of Muslims who will say that these other types of Muslims aren't legitimate, that they don't have authentic Islam. And for me, the journey to the end of Islam was reaching that point where I have to just say, yeah, you know, Islam is whatever you say it is, and Islam is only defined by the person in front of you representing it.
LYDEN: Well, Michael Muhammad Knight, I hope that you keep making that journey, even though you call this the conclusion.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of "Journey to the End of Islam," and he joined us from the studios of Harvard University. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. KNIGHT: Thanks for having me.
LYDEN: Salam Alaykum.
Mr. KNIGHT: Alaykum Salam.
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