Demystifying Muslims

By D.W. Aossey

The Arab-American Handbook
By Nawar Shora
Cune Press, 2009

It is no secret that relations between the United States and much of the Arab and Muslim world have been strained in recent years. Issues of geopolitics and the control of valuable resources lie at the core of the conflict, but the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan have only deepened the divide. The question facing the world today is whether or not it is possible for these two regions to move past the ill will and ignorance of the past and find a way to build bridges in the future.

“The Arab-American Handbook” begins to probe this question while dispelling some of the myths and stereotypes that have come to define Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims. Aimed at a general audience, the approach is a multi-layered. In the first part of the book, the reader is challenged with common stereotypes. Are all Arabs Muslims? What do Arabs look like? Were Arab-Americans responsible for 9/11? The author explains in easy to understand terms that the answers to these and other questions are not as obvious as one might think – and in most cases the general consensus is flat-out wrong. The discussions are well-organized and additional snippets of information ranging from the definition of “Middle East” to the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims are interspersed throughout the text. The book’s interactive nature, along with light-hearted illustrations and anecdotes, lend it an informal, humorous tone.

While the first half of the book does a good job of debunking many unfounded stereotypes, the second half is where the book truly shines. Turning to essays by well-known writers, key issues affecting Arabs, Arab Americans and Muslims are brought to the forefront. Travel logs by Fredric Hunter and critical analysis by Hussein Ibish and Juan Cole provide valuable first person viewpoints and project the Arab, Arab American and Muslim perspective as vibrant and sophisticated. As the reader is transported to Senegal, Tunisia, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Indonesia, critical topics such as the events of 9/11, the debate over secularism versus Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict are discussed at length. The diversity of writing mirrors the broad range of perspective found throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

“The Arab American Handbook” struggles with consistency. The informal back and forth of the first section and the high-minded essay format of the second half do not mesh easily and are aimed at different audiences. Future editions could consider separating the sections into two different books. Furthermore, some of the analysis in the second section is too obscure and technical for a primer aimed at the general public, and certain aspects of 9/11 and the Arab-Israeli conflict are treated with safety and predictability. Nonetheless, the book is truly invaluable in so many ways and certainly achieves its over-all aim.

In this time of uncertainty and skepticism about all things Arab and Muslim, any attempt to set the record straight and achieve cooperation and understanding is vital. In this regard, “The Arab-American Handbook” is truly a great achievement, and those interested in understanding more about Arab Americans or the Arab and Muslim worlds – including Arabs and Muslims themselves – will undoubtedly find it a valuable resource.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

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