Book review: ‘My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind — and Doubt Freed My Soul,’ by Amir Ahmad Nasr

my isl@mAmericans have a complicated relationship with Islam. Most of us aren’t Muslim, and even the best-intentioned people often remain ill-informed, the gaps in our knowledge base filled almost exclusively in the wake of violent events.

Amir Ahmad Nasr’s My Isl@m comes as an important corrective, a welcome and important primary document that follows Nasr’s search for meaning and belonging within his own faith even as he uses new tools and technologies to reach out to the world beyond it.

Barely in his late 20s, Nasr has already traveled a remarkable path: Born in Sudan, he was raised in Qatar and later Malaysia, never fully at home in any of the countries to which his family took him — a Third Culture Kid, “a youngster struggling to assimilate elements of my parents’ culture and other cultures in which I was immersed into a third colorful culture of my own.”

The Islam practiced by his family was relaxed and inclusive by Qatari standards but traditionalist and strict compared to what Nasr found in Malaysia. Encouraged by his parents to build friendships across religious boundaries, but taught in school that infidels would suffer excruciating torture in the afterlife (alongside lax Muslims), his personal faith has moved from a violence-tinged fundamentalism to tortured agnosticism, to where he stands today: A Sufi as dedicated to mystic involvement with the divine as he is to reason and cold, hard facts.

The journey might not have been possible, however, were it not for Nasr’s access to and involvement with the Arab and Muslim blogospheres. It’s a world in which he came to play an increasingly visible role in the course of and aftermath to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, writing about and advocating for such subversive ideas as freedom of speech and interfaith dialogue. My Isl@m is, then, as much a testament to the crucial role that the global sharing of information plays in allowing cultural change as it is a tale of one young man’s evolution of thought.

It is not a perfect book. My Isl@m relies heavily on the reproduction of conversations as if verbatim, but these often read as stilted and expository rather than genuine, and later chapters in particular occasionally come across as a live blog of a graduate-school syllabus — interesting in parts, but not as interesting as watching Nasr live his life and synthesize new ideas into something entirely his own.

But there is also much to praise here: a powerful love of the many cultures to which the author belongs, an ability to praise and criticize at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, a strong and engaging voice that welcomes readers into Nasr’s ongoing search, even as he successfully sketches a telling picture of the range and diversity within the Arab and Muslim worlds (worlds which are not, by any stretch, one and the same).

“The sincere pursuit of Truth requires you to entertain the possibility that everything you believe to be ‘true’ or ‘valid’ may in fact be wrong,” he writes. “Everything. Your nationalism. Your religious beliefs. Your upbringing. Your unexamined convictions. Your story.”

Nasr’s ability to provide a clear, nuanced view of a rich and complex world, coupled with his willingness to unflinchingly expose his own halting path, make My Isl@m an absorbing read, one that should appeal not only to readers seeking to better understand Islam’s depths, but also anyone who’s struggled with the titanic clash of cultures that living in a hyperconnected world can bring — which is to say, a great many people, indeed.

Crossposted from The Dallas Morning News.

Formula One and Bahrain – A force for what, now?

Even with the best intentions there’s a limit to what one can do in any given day, which is why I’ve been following the uprising in Bahrain (a family-run Sunni dictatorship with a majority Shiite population), but haven’t yet written about it. The day, 24 hours, etc, and so on.

But that country’s crown prince said something today that just about made my skull fold in on itself, and so I’ve been driven to the keyboard.

Discussing the fact that the Formula One Grand Prix race will be held in his country on Sunday despite a year-long uprising in which protesters have been killed, gassed, imprisoned, and tortured, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa told the BBC that “cancelling the race just empowers extremists,” whereas holding the race can serve as “a force for good.”

A force for good.

A force for good?

You know what’s a force for good? Democracy. Human rights. Liberty and justice. That sort of thing.

You know what’s not a force for good? This:

“We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of bird shot pellets and rubber bullets,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

“The use of tear gas in particular has reportedly resulted in a number of deaths of protestors and bystanders — and that number has reportedly risen in recent months,” he said. “Reliable sources indicate that the civilians who died from tear gas suffered complications from gas inhalation, and that security forces have been firing metal tear gas canisters from grenade launchers into crowds.”

Oh and hey –  look! Here’s a fact that surprised me exactly not at all!

Bahrain’s royal family owns a stake in Formula One racing, including part of the McLaren Group racing team.

Of course there are complications. The Crown Prince is considered a moderate, and the International Crisis Group pointed out to NPR that the Crown Prince “has built up the Formula One race in Bahrain as part of an economic power base designed to counter his hard-line rivals.”

And protesters have responded to violence with violence, breaking out gasoline bombs in response to the crackdown.

Not to mention the fact that Bahrain is spitting distance from Saudi Arabia and Iran, and serves as home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

But at a certain point, I just don’t care. “Moderate” is far too slippery a term when you’re talking about a family business that’s invested in torture and extrajudicial killings; Bahrain’s protesters responded with violence after they were greeted with brutality; and I kinda thought that the US Navy was a representative of a nation predicated on democracy?

If the Crown Prince really wanted to see a “force for good” take hold, he would do everything in his power to see to it that the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (also known as the Bassiouni Report) are implemented in full, rather than piece-meal and as suits the ruling family’s interests. His country wouldn’t be hosting flashy races while a detainee approaches death on hunger strike, and riot police bring out stun grenades, birdshot and tear gas to hold protesters at bay.

What does the rebellion look like? It looks like the death of 14 year old schoolboy, killed for seeking freedom – even as the government tries to blame his parents for not controlling him. It looks like a family harassed for the temerity of having their child killed:

Indeed, it looks like a Formula One executive fired, because he made the mistake of liking a protest photo on Facebook.

But sure. The Formula One race can be a force for good. Why the hell not.