Books I have Loved, Jan.12, 2014
Young Muslim's writing inspirational
By Robert G. Newman
Comedian Azhar Usman, described as the world's funniest Muslim, made us laugh recently when he appeared in Charleston. We are more used to thinking of Muslims as terrorists, to be feared and hated. But this is because our knowledge is distorted by news coverage that paints all Muslims as violent Jihadists.
Scientific research shows that 85 percent of the world's Muslims are peaceful and reject the minority who are mired in warfare. Sad and tragic for us all that we know so little of the peaceful majority, some of whom are our neighbors, while we are constantly bombarded with images of the violent minority.
What a breath of fresh air to discover the book "Acts of Faith" by Eboo Patel (Beacon Press, 2007). This young Muslim, member of the Ismaili branch of Islam, emigrates with his family from India to a suburb of Chicago, and describes in vivid detail his adolescent struggles to embrace his family's faith and become a responsible middle class citizen of his adopted homeland. He must resist attempts to recruit him into hatred for Americans and he must wrestle against the prejudice that is slow to welcome him as a brown skin equal.
Early on Eboo Patel discovers that cultural purity and triumphalism of ghetto mentality is an alluring but ultimately self-defeating paradigm for a responsible and fulfilling lifestyle. Much better is pluralism that accepts and welcomes any and all value systems, subject to critical scrutiny and experimentation. Public education plays a major role in his growth and maturity, especially when he survives junior and senior high school and enrolls in The University of Illinois.
He becomes a Rhodes Scholar and earns a doctoral degree in Sociology of Religion at Oxford University. His research confirms his motivating hunches that violence thrives on ignorance, prejudice, and dead-end goals that produce terrorism, whereas healthy exposure to a pluralism of values and lifestyles produces dialogue, knowledge, and understanding that cultivates justice and peace, the inherent values of classical Islam.
These years of struggle, discovery and preparation produce his leadership that establishes the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit dedicated to building the interfaith youth movement. This author's autobiographical report of his pilgrimage was recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Religion Award, given in recognition of his leadership promoting peaceful instead of hostile relations among young people, leaders of tomorrow, across pluralistic encounters of culture and ethnicity.
What a commendable and inspiring record and report of leadership arising from a young Muslim who is committed to the goals of the prophet Muhammad, not to mention the prophet Jesus. Allahu akbar!
Newman is professor emeritus of religion at the University of Charleston.
'Tree Grows' left an impression
When Susan Williams posed the question of which books in my life I have loved, which books have made a difference, it was a challenge. When you're a nearly compulsive reader, as I am, all the books I read, from literary greats to cheesy romances, leave a mark. But if I really think about which books I still think about, it becomes clearer.
I lived in Queens, N.Y., until I was 6, and lived on Long Island until leaving for college in Buckhannon. As a teenager, I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. It's the story of a young girl, Francie, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. I immediately identified with Francie, who was an avid reader as I was. She and I shared many of the same struggles, even though she was born 60 years before I was. I loved the glimpses of old New York. I even could identify with the Nolan/Rommely families, as I came from an Irish/German background myself.
I still reread this book at least once a year, and I still feel like I am seeing an old friend, one that I am comfortable with, but still offers me something new each time I meet her.
Books can make you laugh, think
My best friend in the Peace Corps introduced me to John Steinbeck. "Tortilla Flat" and "Cannery Row" were the first books that caused me to laugh out loud. "In Dubious Battle" was my favorite of Steinbeck's serious novels.
Other gut laughs came from Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," brought to my attention by Mike Adkins, a Duval High School student; Tom Sharpe's hilarious "Riotous Assembly" and "Indecent Exposure," spoofed the insanity of South African society under apartheid.
My all time favorite novel is "The Black Obelisk" by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the more famous "All Quiet on the Western Front." "The Black Obelisk" begins in 1923 Germany when the economic collapse fueled the early days of Hitler. Sometimes funny and black humored, this story is told as a salary increase in the morning had to be spent before the noon currency exchange rates rendered it worthless and a cigar could economically be lit with a ten-mark note. And there is a drunken retired army officer who urinates on the black obelisk.
Starting with "Things Fall Apart" I read the wonderful novels of Nigerian Ibo author Chinua Achebe. Achebe tells of the subjugation of the Ibo culture by British domination and takes place where I lived in the Peace Corps.
Some other favorites are "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" with its treatment of missionary arrogance and folly in the Amazon jungle; "The Last of the Just" by Andre Schwarz-Barz, considered by some to be the greatest novel of the Holocaust.
Of course, "1984" and "Animal Farm," which I read as a WVU student in 1955, when 1984 seemed far in the future, had profound effects on me. I could go on with works such as "Moby Dick," "The Scarlet Letter," Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s sly musings and many others that stopped me in my tracks and turned me around.
Denise Giardina's "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth" tell us in seamless prose how West Virginia got in such a mess; as does Ronald Lewis' "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920." For pictures of that mess, try "Plundering Appalachia," edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner. And don't miss "Night Comes to the Cumberlands."
And to grin and laugh, sometimes out loud, there are the first two volumes of Pogo comic strips, from whence comes, "Deck us all with Boston Charlie."
Still learning from Thoreau
Walden. Walden. Walden.
My education started in a one-room country school, which provided two benefits. A. I could listen in while the teacher worked with the older kids. B. I was left alone while the teacher worked with the older kids.
I was dyslexic in a good way -- I spelled words backward but I could read 90 miles an hour. Dick and Jane at the Farm, phooey. I read "Robinson Crusoe" in first grade. And kept on reading. But it was all reading for fun, recreational reading, until I banged into Henry David Thoreau.
That was reading to make one think; reading to open one's mind. It was reading to let a 12-year-old kid know he wasn't alone in viewing this world sideways.
Most of my reading is still for fun; but Thoreau and Mark Twain, and a very few others with wide thoughts and strong word skills are still educating me.