Keeping It Halal

The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys

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John O'Brien
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , September
     2017.
     216 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691168821.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book, based on three and half years of ethnographic fieldwork in and around a large urban mosque in the US, investigates in detail the strategies that one group of Muslim young men use to navigate competing American and Islamic norms. The six chapters of the work present and analyze data acquired through John O’Brien’s extensive interactions with the site to reflect on diverse spheres of activity including pop culture involvement, pre-marital romance, asserting autonomy vs. maintaining affiliation, and cultivating skillful responses to anti-Muslim harassment.

O’Brien’s study is an example of research conducted in a sub-cultural context within a familiar dominant culture. The group with which the author interacted was comprised of seven high school age Muslim males of various ethnic immigrant backgrounds—African, South Asian, and Arab American. O’Brien, himself a convert to Islam, takes a sympathetic view of his subjects. The book’s descriptions of dress, behaviors, and speech patterns perform a micro-analysis of small undramatic episodes of everyday life that in some sense serve to normalize and explain what to some might presume to be the “exotic” life worlds of young, practicing Muslims in America. The book includes detailed reflections on identity through topics such as “How to Listen to Hip Hop as a Good Muslim” and how “American Prayer” can simultaneously serve as a site of Islamic obligation and discursive individualism.

What sets apart the incidents described in this coming-of-age ethnography is their subjects’ struggle to negotiate two—at least two—distinctive cultural worlds at a time when Islam and Muslim identity are so stigmatized. A pervasive rubric is the “culturally contested” life. The efforts of these young men to toggle between cultural systems are documented and usefully compared to similar issues facing American youth from other religious subcultures such as Hasidic Jews or evangelical Christians. These young Muslims selectively engage with aspects of American cultural life, while within their own community they also push back in subtle ways against elders who expect them to perform “good Muslimness” under the American gaze. 

While an important component of the social life of these young men revolves around the mosque and Islamic activities, they further coalesce as members of a hip hop group called the Legendz. More detailed analysis of the appeal of American cultural forms (such as hip hop) that have important connections to indigenous Islamic symbols and movements are not found in this analysis. Su‘ad Abdul Khabeer’s Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016) could be recommended in that regard. 

At times the author’s assumption that non-Muslim Americans believe that there is something fundamentally and profoundly different about Muslims when compared to other Americans seems to echo the genre of media stories that highlight the juxtaposition of the religiously different and the culturally familiar, as in features about Muslim all girl proms or mosque-based scout troops. The reader reaction is assumed to be bemused puzzlement followed by a warm fuzzy realization that these folks are pretty normal at the end of the day and should be accepted into our national framework. 

A concept employed by this study that also helps explain the vibrant engagement with religious activities of Muslim youth on a global scale is “cool piety.” This analysis of piety, however, stops at the level of describing behaviors rather than engaging theories of embodiment, self-discipline, or counterpublics that we find among anthropologists such as Saba Mahmood or Lara Deeb who have written on female Islamic movements in the Middle East. This makes me wonder whether more substantive reflection on gender and embodiment or, in this case, masculinity, would have added more depth to the analysis. More reflection on the element of class position might also have helped us understand the subjects’ fairly limited engagement with traditional Islamic learning—these are not the Muslim youth we meet in studies such as Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (NYU Press, 2013) who, during roughly the same time period, travel to foreign locations in Yemen or Syria in pursuit of “authentic” Islam. Neither are they the American Muslim youth who attend elite East Coast universities in Shabana Mir’s Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), although both groups share similar challenges of identity navigation.

This study represents useful documentation of the experiences of one group of Muslims growing up as part of an urban, multi-ethnic, mosque community in post-9/11 America. In addition to the works mentioned above, studies considering other, more ethnically homogenous Muslim sub-cultures in America—for example, Yemeni high school girls in Detroit—are recommended as supplements offering both similar and distinctive experiences of American Muslim youth.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcia Hermansen is Professor in the Theology Department and Director of the Islamic World Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John O’Brien is Assistant Professor of Sociology at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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