Suburban Islam

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Justine Howe
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islam is as American as apple pie, father-son football games, and cooking hot dogs over a campfire. So argue members of the Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb Foundation, the community at the center of Justine Howe’s welcome addition to the historiography of American Islam. Webb Foundation members seek to foster an American Muslim identity which demonstrates their belief that Islam and America are mutually beneficial systems which work together seamlessly to promote the same ideals of pluralism, liberal democracy, and individual freedom. In Suburban Islam Howe explores the ways in which Webb members strive to live out this ideal through activities ranging from women’s book clubs and father-son football games, to apple-picking trips, and mawlid celebrations. Rooted in Howe’s participant-observation work and extensive life-history interviews with Webb community members, Suburban Islam analyzes how Webb members draw on aspects of their American culture and Islamic faith to construct a space in which participating in certain American consumerist practices becomes Islamic, and Muslims are seen as just as American as Catholics and Jews. The first half of the book centers on the outward-facing components of this identity, with Howe situating the Webb Foundation within the religious and socio-economic context of suburban Chicago. The second half of the book examines the inward dimensions of an American Muslim identity, with Howe tracing the ways in which individual Webb members come to understand and articulate their American Muslim identity vis-à-vistheir many conversation partners, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Howe’s spatial approach and use of the concept of “third space” to analyze the Webb community is a significant, and much needed, intervention in the historiography of American Islam. Edward Soja developed the concept of “third space” to describe spaces which offer opportunities to creatively re-imagine one’s identity in ways which draw upon competing cultural norms while simultaneously resisting those norms. Howe uses this concept to analyze how her subjects selectively draw on, and resist, the cultural and religious norms of non-Muslim American and “immigrant” Muslim American communities. Doing so allows her to pay close attention to the power dynamics at play within the Webb community. Howe highlights how, despite their many social and economic privileges, Webb community members still articulate a view of Islam “from the margins,” with the community’s views and practices marginalized by both non-Muslim Americans and—less-assimilated—“immigrant” Muslims. Still, Howe avoids framing the Webb community as the ideal to which American Muslims should strive. She frequently notes that while the Webb community seeks to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and America, the ways in which it draws distinctions between itself and “immigrant” Muslim communities often build on and perpetuate the trope of Islam as a foreign threat, and succeed in further marginalizing “immigrant” Muslims.

Howe’s spatial approach fits well with her emphasis on religious practices, as both help her examine how Webb members articulate and debate the meaning of—and role of women within—practices such as communal ritual prayer, mawlid celebrations, and Qur’anic study. Howe productively expands our concept of lived Islam to include apple-picking trips, book clubs, and dinner table debates over whether or not going to the prom is halal. More important though is her close analysis of how American Islamic identities are produced through a negotiated articulation of the significance of particular practices, such as the English language-only mawlid celebration which the Webb members held to express their Americanness and their continuity with the broader Islamic tradition. Howe never questions the Webb community’s Islamic bona fides. Instead, she demonstrates how their selective appropriation of aspects of Islamic heritage—such as emphasizing the early Islamic community as the ideal Islamic community—shares certain assumptions with other Islamic movements, such as Salafism, which the Webb community critiques.

Even though not everyone in the Webb community is a child of recent immigrants, in many ways Suburban Islam remains a book about assimilation. Yet, rather than focusing on the challenges of assimilation, Howe examines how Muslims who have largely assimilated into (white) suburban American culture construct an identity in which they are both ideal Americans and distinct from the average American in ways that Webb members see as making them better Americans. Issues of assimilation and being American are often more prominent in Howe’s book than are questions of suburban life. Nevertheless suburban serves well as a descriptor for the modality of Islam which Howe examinesinsofar as it connotes a sense of a mainstream—and thereby white—American identity rooted in consumer culture, liberal democratic ideals, upward social mobility, and an embrace of the socio-political status quo. Suburban also resonates with the de-centeredness of religious authority within the Webb community. Indeed, issues of Islamic authority in America are central to Howe’s argument, and her analysis of these issues builds closely upon previous works such as Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country (New York University Press, 2014) and Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Race plays a fascinating role in Howe’s book—a role which Howe might have examined even further. While the Webb Foundation is multiracial, Howe notes that its founders intentionally chose to name their organization after a 19th-century white American convert to Islam, rather than another famous American Muslim, such as Malcolm X, in part because they felt Muhammad Webb’s story better reflected the unity they saw between American and Islamic ideals. This act seems like an acceptance, if not adoption, of American identity as white; and Howe’s book raises intriguing questions about how the Webb community articulates a view of Islam as being compatible with whiteness. More central to Howe’s text, however, is the broader issue of privilege, and how some socio-economically privileged American Muslims strive to create a space in which being an American Muslim is also privileged. From spatial analysis and lived religion, to consumer culture and immigration studies, Suburban Islam makes more interventions than its brief title suggests. It is a delight to read, and students and scholars of Islam in America, religion and space, and religion and consumer culture will find Howe’s work particularly useful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael McLaughlin is a doctoral student in American Religious History in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justine Howe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University, where she also serves as a core faculty member in the Women's and Gender Studies Program.


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