Whitewashing Radical Islam

My Year Inside Radical Islam wasn’t so extreme after all—and to suggest otherwise is dangerous.

In a crowded publishing industry, marketing is everything. And Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ new book, My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir, seems at first glance to hit all the right notes, beginning with its provocative title. Gartenstein-Ross is billed as someone who barely escaped from the very grip of evil, a radical Muslim turned Christian, a counterterrorism consultant who has testified before Congress and volunteered for questioning by the FBI. Conservative commentators, from syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin to Front Page magazine’s Jamie Glazov to talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, have seized on Gartenstein-Ross as a conquering hero who resisted terrorism and extremism to emerge a Christian. “If there were justice in Hollywood, the book would have already been optioned as a movie by now,” Malkin gushed.

But there was nothing particularly radical about Gartenstein-Ross’ experience with Islam in the first place, except for a few alarming opinions that he briefly subscribed to—in his mind—as a very young man. The book is more a journey inside the developing religious conscience of a 22-year-old than inside the world of radical Islam. Along the way, Gartenstein-Ross does a serious disservice to moderate and progressive Muslims, who are too often suspected of terrorist activities, and non-Muslim Americans curious about the differences between moderate and radical Islam.

Americans tend to have a hard time comprehending the nuances of Islam. Headlines since 9/11 about the religion haven’t offered nearly enough insight into the multifaceted Muslim community and its broad spectrum of beliefs and practices. Even five years into our supposed education about the faith, what usually comes to people’s minds is still the extremism of al-Qaida and the Taliban, groups that are far removed from the faith practiced by most American Muslims. But even that modicum of knowledge is incomplete. Radical, extremist groups follow specific schools of thought, interpretations of the Quran, and religious practice. And we’re still struggling to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

Gartenstein-Ross does little to illuminate either the political world of radical Islam or the theological underpinnings of orthodox Muslim practice. Worse yet, he conflates theological conservatism and radicalism. But following religious law in a strict way is not nearly the same thing as taking up arms in defense of that law, and Gartenstein-Ross confuses the two to the detriment of his readers.

Shortly after Gartenstein-Ross began his college career, he was deeply shaken by a life-threatening bout with Crohn’s disease. After that, the liberal Jewish/Unitarian religious relativism his parents had raised him with in hippie-haven Ashland, Ore., felt flat and meaningless. With guidance from his best friend, a Sufi Muslim who leaned toward progressive politics and mystical religion, Gartenstein-Ross became not only a passionate social-justice activist but also, during a semester abroad in Italy, a Muslim.

In 1998, after graduating from college, Gartenstein-Ross took a job with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation essentially because the group, flush with money from Saudi Arabia and the sole Muslim outpost in town, was looking for an employee. * (After 9/11, the FBI shut down Al-Haramain and indicted Gartenstein-Ross’ former boss for conspiracy to defraud the United States and for filing a false IRS return by a tax-exempt organization. Gartenstein-Ross was neither involved in nor aware of any of these illegal actions.) This job encompasses Gartenstein-Ross’ “radicalization and the long slow climb out” of Islam, an odd label, considering the entirety of his indoctrination and extrication is less than two years. The book would be better titled My Yearlong Job at a Charity That I Had No Idea Was Funding al-Qaida. But that would hardly make the front table at Barnes and Noble, would it?

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents’ home, where he was living during his job. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a “radicalized Muslim” as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely “radical” religious action: Midway through his job, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen. * Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat—he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who’s been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn’t John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we’re supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he’s being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear. First he is chastised by a colleague for saying that female genital mutilation is not rooted in the Muslim faith. “Removing a woman’s vulva is a complex area of Islamic law? I thought. But debating, I realized, would have been futile.” Later, when he receives an e-mail referring to “pervert Jews” and “their so-called Holocaust,” Gartenstein-Ross recalls, “I thought about replying with a message saying that you don’t have to attack the Jews to support the Chechens or the Muslims. … But what good would that have done?”

If this litany of nonconfrontation in the face of hateful teachings is supposed to speak to radical Islam’s terrifyingly irresistible recruiting power, it fails. Instead, it leaves the reader with the odd impression that radical Islam is sort of benign—strange and mean, maybe, but benign. And that’s something that America can ill afford to believe.

There’s far more to extremist Islam than provocative pamphlets, anti-Semitic e-mails, harsh speech, and private jihadist prayers; radical Islam, unfortunately, does not begin and end with words. What immunized Gartenstein-Ross from making the leap from rhetoric and theology to radicalism and violence? We never find out, which is a shame, because it might have shown us something about what goes wrong when newfound religious devotion does take a violent turn. With his book, Gartenstein-Ross misses an important opportunity to illuminate how—and why—the ideas he discovered incite action, hatred, deception, and violence in others.

The need for Americans to better understand Islam in all its complexity, in all its forms, has been apparent since 9/11 and is renewed every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the mountains of Afghanistan. It’s far too serious a world for books that fail to illuminate this complexity, especially those that would drain the term “radical Islam” of its power, reducing it to something as frivolous as a marketing strategy.

Correction, March 9, 2007: This piece originally and incorrectly referred five times to Gartenstein-Ross’ internship with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. It was actually a job and has been corrected throughout the piece. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also stated incorrectly that Gartenstein-Ross began to pray for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Gartenstein-Ross did pray for the mujahideen, but the Chechen war had not yet begun at that time. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)