ISLAM IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. By Zareena Grewal. New York: New York University Press. 2014.
Perhaps no twenty-first-century trend in the field of American Studies has been more pronounced than the transnational turn. As with any scholarly fad, the move to link the United States to hemispheric and global histories and stories has had its share of facile or forced ideas, but when these connections have worked best, they have offered profoundly potent new lenses through which to analyze American cultures and communities, issues, and identities. Dr. Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country exemplifies the possibilities of such transnational scholarship, while also and, even more importantly, crossing two other borders.
For one thing, Grewal’s book mines the genre of autoethnography more successfully than any I have read in years, and bears comparison to gold standards such as The Woman Warrior and Borderlands/La Frontera. From the introduction’s nuanced and convincing depiction of Grewal’s transformation into a “Native Orientalist” through the epilogue’s reflections on the unfolding (at the time of her writing) Arab Spring, Grewal consistently analyzes her own identity and perspective with the same complexity and thoughtfulness she brings to her focal historical and contemporary Muslim communities. Since much of her argument depends on a definition of those communities as experiencing a form of Du Boisian “double consciousness,” the book’s autoethnographic layers offer a nicely complementary depiction of the author as both scholar and subject.
Grewal’s text is also impressively layered in its disciplinary lenses. Chapters 2 and 3 wed historical anthropology to immigration, migration, and race studies, locating the twentieth-century Muslim diaspora and the American communities it produced alongside the African-American Great Migration (Chapter 2) and the global effects of the 1965 Immigration Act (Chapter 3). And the four chapters in Part II weave a number of other disciplines into this evolving pattern, from religious and gender studies in Chapters 4 and 5 to media studies and digital rhetorics in Chapters 6 and 7. As with her willingness to include her own identity as part of her analysis, what Grewal consistently demonstrates in these chapters is an ability to go wherever her subjects demand, and to utilize each disciplinary lens with analytical sophistication and a clear awareness of the broader scholarly conversations in each case.
One of the ways I would define the best scholarship is that it opens up additional connections and investigations beyond those on which it focuses; in the case of Grewal’s impressive book, I would be very interested to read how she might bring this lens to bear on more longstanding Muslim American histories. I am thinking in particular about South Carolina’s Revolutionary-era Moroccan “Moorish” community, the members of which were legally defined as “white” in one of the period’s most complex laws, the state legislature’s 1790 Moors Sundry Act. That is, if many of Grewal’s contexts—from 9/11 and the Second Iraq War to the Arab Spring—are quite specific to our twenty-first-century moment, I would argue that her focal questions and themes have been part of American communities, Muslim and otherwise, from the outset.