Strangers in Strange Lands

This narrative brooked no room for nuance or subtlety: the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, we were told, heralded a clash of civilizations between the democratic West and a backward Muslim horde. One side cherished freedom and tolerance; the other lurked in the darker corners of the earth, venturing out only to strike at the symbols of these values.

The United States and its Western allies responded to the terrorist affront by unleashing two wars and sanctioning the violence of its stationary aircraft carrier in the Middle East, Israel. The results have been dubious, bloody—and above all—almost a complete abstraction for the Western publics who have outsourced their fighting to lean, all-volunteer armies and mercenaries.

One reality, however, cannot be abstracted: the increasingly visible Muslim populations who have made lives for themselves within the West.

Whether integrated or unassimilated, these populations have prompted unease, anger, and hysteria in the United States and Europe; they serve as an uncomfortable reminder to the Western consciousness that the dichotomous rhetoric of “the Clash” is both rebutted by and reflected in local realities.

Kavitha Rajagopalan’s book, Muslims of Metropolis, chronicles the struggles of three Muslim immigrants and their families as they vie to establish themselves in this unwelcoming environment. An immigration scholar, Rajagopalan offers accounts that are at once broad and detailed, clinical and intimate, providing scholarly insight and sociological context with a deft touch.

Her subjects are compelling, and their stories complex. Rajagopalan spares little detail in describing their problems and passions: there is Sukriye Dogan, the bold Kurdish activist from Turkey whose German citizenship lets her help more desperate compatriots, including the man who becomes her husband; Sharif Nashashibi, whose strong sense of Palestinian identity propels him to travel from his surrogate home in Britain to the West Bank and back again; and Nishat Islam, who comes to New York City with her Bangladeshi father and marries a Pakistani husband only to see both deported, forcing her to become her own advocate in the face of long odds.

Rajagopalan interweaves a fair amount of geopolitical detail, giving readers enough background to understand that Muslims are not a monolithic or even a united mass. She touches on the Turkish repression of Kurdish identity, refracted even through the prism of German immigrant politics; the undignified treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of other Arabs; and the Pakistani elite’s disastrous marginalization of what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. In doing so, she implicitly renders absurd the phantasm of a well-oiled immigrant Muslim machine plotting “Islamicization” of the West.

The book is clearly a labor of love, passion, and advocacy. The author connects and sympathizes with her subjects, particularly Sukriye, an iron woman who neither clings to nor abandons her culture.

But the method of conveying these stories, and the choice to focus on three specific characters, also imposes some limits on what we learn.

Curiously, the book is written almost entirely as narrative. Not only the subjects’ pasts (the stories of how parents met, migration, and childhood) but, even young adulthood and present circumstance are conveyed mostly through Rajagopalan’s prose.

Though she has a knack for poetic descriptiveness, this style is at odds with the more accessible and immediate dialogue-heavy method employed by most journalists (and modern fiction writers). As the storytelling pauses for the author’s general commentary on immigration patterns and political context, the competing narration invariably slows things down.

Moreover, amid these accounts of the personal and the poignant—Sukriye’s frantic quest to unite with her love, Sharif’s resolve to find success in his media activism, Nishat’s frenzied attempts to cling to what is left of her family—the reader does not learn much about how Muslims engage with their faith in the West. The author occasionally alludes to the conflicts between tradition and modernity, but she does not tackle the question of how the protagonists might have grappled with their relationship to Islam itself against the backdrop of extremism and Islamophobia.

She notes in the introduction that she spoke with imams, police, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and editors of ethnic press; their experiences and opinions might have been included to shed light on the way Muslims relate to Islam in the West. Perhaps this would have been out of place because none of the subjects identify themselves as primarily religious, or because they are occupied by more immediate concerns by dint of their admittedly dramatic circumstances. But as the corrosive effects of war accrete, spawning a growing phenomenon of Western Muslim militancy, this seems an important question to have left unaddressed.

If Muslims from Metropolis does not allow us to glean much on that score, it nonetheless eloquently captures many moments of frustration, heartbreak, uncertainty, and grit as the protagonists navigate the unforgiving channels of immigration bureaucracy.

It is hard not to taste the bitter irony of Nishat’s situation as she leaves America to return to the subcontinent; her proud father had crossed the ocean with her because she was a promising student, and she returns uneducated and with two disabled children to an emasculated, abusive husband.

Likewise, it is easy to privately cheer Sukriye’s and Sharif’s well-deserved successes, as the two settle into more satisfying lives in Germany and Britain after finally carving out political and cultural niches that represent and reinforce their national heritage.

Muslims of Metropolis does not directly examine the pressing question of how Islamic identity is shaped in the West, but it succeeds on most of its own terms, offering an honest, in-depth portrait of three Muslim immigrants whose tenuous lives speak to universal themes of hope, despair, and above all, struggle.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, lives in New York. He has been published in several outlets, including Altmuslim.com, Antiwar.com, and The Nation’s website. He writes about America and Islam on his website, Crossing the Crescent.