POLITICS MY YEAR INSIDE RADICAL ISLAM: A MEMOIR By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS [Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 293 pages, 2007]
WHEN John Walker Lindh appeared on CNN after his 2001 capture in Afghanistan, looking unwashed and vaguely surprised, one of my first thoughts was: “I can’t wait to read his memoir.”
Because Walker Lindh is under a gag order until his release from federal prison in 2019, that’s going to be a long wait. Similarly, Adam Gadahn, another California-raised al-Qaeda operative, now wanted in the United States for treason, is too busy making stagy propaganda videos to sign any publishing contracts just now.
Coming to the rescue of me and everyone else who wants to know how a smart American guy with every advantage could go to the Muslim Dark Side is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. His new memoir, My Year Inside Radical Islam, chronicles his religious journey, from child of hippie Jews to enthusiastic Sufi-flavored Muslim to brooding post-college Wahhabi to exMuslim FBI informant to his current incarnation – Christian working in the right-wing reaches of counterterrorism blog-journalism.
Given his current religious and ideological location, American Muslims have every reason to fear this memoir. Is it another Irshad Manji-type broadside against Islam? In addition to appearing on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” – which showcases Christians who have left “false religions” – Gartenstein-Ross today shares online mastheads with Steven Emerson, the oft-discredited terrorism alarmist, and Charles Johnson, creator of “Little Green Footballs,” a Web site frequently condemned as racist and anti-Muslim.
But those qualifications make it all the more surprising that Gartenstein-Ross’ book is so free of blame and judgment. The 30-year-old writes about his religious journey with the wondering curiosity of an observer. So how, indeed, did he end up as a radical Muslim?
While an undergraduate at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Gartenstein-Ross encountered al-Husein Madhany, a Sunni raised as an Isma’ili who was active in campus politics. Madhany currently the Executive Editor of this magazine, introduced Gartenstein-Ross to new ideas about racial awareness and liberal politics – along with an inquisitive, ecumenical version of Islam. While studying abroad in Venice, surrounded by welcoming Italian Naqshbandi converts, Gartenstein-Ross said his Shahada (testimony of faith). Back on campus, Gartenstein-Ross and Madhany joined their religious enthusiasm to a thirst for social change – “the greater jihad” – and Gartenstein-Ross was pleased that his new beliefs harmonized with those of his Jewish parents, who practiced Eastern-style New Age spirituality.
Looking back, one wants to freeze that frame of Gartenstein-Ross, kufi on head, striding across campus, full of purpose and good intention. Is it possible to convert to Islam today without having to run across the hot coals of extremism? As with so many converts, that trial-by-fire began when he began to integrate himself at the local mosque.
As luck or fate would have it, the mosque in Gartenstein-Ross’ hometown of Ashland, Ore., was run by a charismatic, slippery Iranian who called himself Pete Seda. Though outgoing and well loved by Ashland’s non-Muslims, Seda introduced Gartenstein-Ross to a radical version of Islam. At his first Jumah prayer, Gartenstein-Ross heard a Saudi shaykh insist that all Muslims have a religious obligation to make Ayr« (emigrate) from America, “a land ruled by the kufar (unbelievers).”
Though put off by these Wahhabi views, Gartenstein-Ross accepted a job offer from Seda to work at his Islamic information center, which was affiliated with the Saudibased charity Al Haramain Islamic Foundation – a group later accused of being a conduit for al-Qaeda funding. In the course of a year, Gartenstein-Ross gradually shut down his intellect to accept the two-dimensional worldvievv of the Wahhabis around him.
Gartenstein-Ross offers us small glimpses into this transformation that is the crux of the narrative. First, there were inner motivations: He was attracted to the black-and-white certainties of conservative religion. When he met a fellow American convert who now lived in Saudi Arabia, Gartenstein-Ross was impressed by the man’s thoughtful Salafism. His “ability to negate all that was inconsistent with his worldview was so different from the life I was living, a life full of uncertainty and compromises . . . How could I not be drawn to this clarity?” writes Gartenstein-Ross.
Second, there were external forces. When Gartenstein-Ross went into work each day, his Wahhabi colleagues frequently criticized him: His pants were too long, he was engaged to a nonMuslim, he respected apostates like W.D. Muhammad. This peer pressure led him to change his behavior, and as GartensteinRoss learned as a campus activist, belief often follows behavior. He gradually internalized the beliefs around him, questioning his engagement, eschewing the music that he loved, and, finally, praying for mujahidin. Praying for mujahidin, while shocking in the context of Gartenstein-Ross’ life, was almost routine in pre-9/1 1 Muslim circles. It would have been hard to find a mosque at that time where prayers for mujahidecn were not a regular part of Ramadan’s qunool al-witr prayers.
Fortunately for Gartenstein-Ross if unfortunately for the book’s sales prospects – these steps of personal piety were as far as his radicalism went. “I was never a card-carrying al-Qaeda member,” he said in an interview. By the time Seda asked him to pick up an Al Haramain director at the airport – who later turned out to be carrying money for terrorism purposes – Gartenstein-Ross was already estranged from his radical faith and he declined to pick up the man.
Gartenstein-Ross never approached the premeditated violent radicalism of Gadahn or Walker Lindh. He can offer only so much insight into the paths of the disturbed men who would fight against their own country, or, like the London bombers, end their lives while blowing up humanity around them.
But Gartenstein-Ross’ book, though less sensational than some might like, offers a window into a more commonplace but no less important experience: that of conversion to Islam today. He reveals how ideologically vulnerable a convert can be: In that first flush of excitement and devotion, almost anyone claiming Islamic authority can dramatically imprint the convert’s faith.
What, then, does this book say about Muslim leadership in the United States, that an intelligent, well-meaning convert could be led so far astray so quickly? Gartenstein-Ross is amazingly quiet on this issue. He blames no one. He said in an interview that his memoir is “a chronicle of errors” – his own. But American Muslims may well ask: Why is it a norm, rather than an exception, that converts are bombarded by conservative messages the moment they walk into a mosque? Of course there is a dividing line, if not always clear, between harmless conservatism and violent radicalism, but the question is nonetheless troubling.
While mosques trumpet the number of converts walking through their front doors, they rarely keep tabs on the many leaving through back doors. Progressive young Muslims today have formed social and religious networks that exist almost completely independent of mosques, leaving those institutions to revert to what a friend calls “the most conservative common denominator.” And yet where else is a new convert to go in search of the brotherhood and sisterhood they so eagerly seek? Gartenstein-Ross’ book, if anything, should prod progressive-minded Muslims to think twice about abandoning their local mosques.
For those concerned with the drama of Islam in America, the end of the book may prove disappointing. Because GartensteinRoss converts to Christianity shortly after his departure from the Oregon Islamic Center, he distances himself from the Muslim conversion in an important way. The reader is left with many questions: Is there a version of Islam that is intellectually sound, religiously authentic and able to satisfy that inner desire for clarity? Was Gartenstein-Ross’ initial happiness in the religion sustainable?
Gartenstein-Ross does not answer these questions, but his book opens a door for conversation inside Muslim communities in America. Hopefully, some of the many Muslims who have dallied with Wahhabism and lived to tell about it will step forward with their stories, as Gartenstein-Ross has been brave enough to do.