Book Review: War on Error by Melody Moezzi

[Originally posted on March 10, 2008 at]

If there’s one point author Melody Moezzi drives home in her new book War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, it’s that American Muslims have their work cut out for them these days. They are, to coin a phrase, caught between two worlds. The English name “Melody” combined with the Iranian “Moezzi” is in itself a summary of the situation in which many young American Muslims find themselves. Those who are first- or second-generation Americans (what Moezzi humorously labels Children of Fresh-Off-the-Boats, or COFOBs) struggle to find a day-by-day middle ground between mainstream American culture, which is largely and often willfully ignorant of any faith other than Protestant Christianity, and the deep-seated Islamic traditions of their forefathers. They are often called upon by their non-Muslim fellow citizens to account for the actions of the extremists within their faith (“…this mistaken minority of hate-mongers and power-seekers who fraudulently claim to be acting in the name of Islam.”). The Western world is very much in conflict with this highly vocal and decidedly violent minority, regardless of how much we might wish it to be otherwise. Fortunately, the United States has so far been spared the variety of home-grown extremists that have caused so much trouble in Spain, France and the United Kingdom.

And as Moezzi points out, Islam is also, in some ways, at war with itself. A silent majority of progressive, moderate Muslims are afraid to oppose their overbearing (dare we say “terroristic”?) cousins for fear of looking like traitors to Islam.

War on Error reads like a diary or confessional, each chapter offering an all-too-brief sketch of a 20- or 30-something Muslim American, each of whom is a friend or a friend-of-a-friend in Moezzi’s extended network of loved ones and associates. She readily admits that this is a non-random sampling, so if she is young, idealistic, creative and ambitious, it should come as no surprise that those she profiles share many of those traits. Nonetheless, if the men and women encountered in War on Error (the title is both a play on the so-called War on Terror and the Qu’ranic declaration that “Truth stands out clear from Error”) are anything like a representative sample, we have good reason to be hopeful.

Moezzi profiles a dozen people, herself included, introducing both their admirable qualities and their quirks. There’s Roxana, an Iranian expat who listens to Pet Shop Boys and aspires to be a dentist; Matthew, Moezzi’s husband, a white American raised Christian who must constantly assure people he did not convert to Islam just to land a wife; Ameer, a half-Korean half-Egyptian whose motto in life is “Whatever works for them, if that moves ‘em on in the world, you know? God bless ‘em. Let ‘em do their thing, yo”; Sarah, a Sudanese bisexual who unapologetically indulges in life’s sensual pleasures; Faisal R., the tattooed son of Pakistani immigrants who ruefully observes that there are as many people in his parent’s country of origin who are as ignorant of Islam (due to illiteracy) as everyday Americans; Sanida, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bosnian who experienced war firsthand; Molham, a millionaire software entrepreneur who appreciates America’s freedoms while recognizing its imperfections; Willow, another white American convert who wears hijab in Egypt while writing for DC Comics; Hafeeza, a “black Black woman” with connections to the Nation of Islam; Asra, West Virginian activist and single mother trying to break down gender barriers (she’s also the author of Standing Alone in Mecca); and Faisal A., who fights bigotry among his co-religionists against gays and others of unorthodox sexuality.

Moezzi offers a summary of her faith that most Americans will find hard to accept: “…Islam is a faith based on reason, equality and justice and… hatred and bigotry have no proper place in any truly Islamic practice.” I have to admit, as a rationalist and skeptic I have my doubts. I view Islam with the same critical eye that I cast on every other religion. I can’t see how Islam is any more reasonable or just than, say, Christianity. Any reading of the Qu’ran will expose as many contradictions and outdated ethical practices as found in the Bible.

Still, it’s hard not to see Moezzi as an ally, insomuch as she advocates peace, tolerance, understanding and reform. (Indeed, I was pleased to read her account of how she and Asra crashed a segregated Morgantown mosque and confronted the narrow-minded imam.) While I can’t say I want any kind of Islam to grow, I’d much rather see the kind of loving, progressive Islam that Moezzi envisions than the alternative we see in the news every night. To that extent, I wish her the best of luck.

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