Keeping It Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys by John O’Brien

A compelling portrait of a group of boys as they navigate the complexities of being both American teenagers and good Muslims

This book provides a uniquely personal look at the social worlds of a group of young male friends as they navigate the complexities of growing up Muslim in America. Drawing on three and a half years of intensive fieldwork in and around a large urban mosque, John O’Brien offers a compelling portrait of typical Muslim American teenage boys concerned with typical teenage issues—girlfriends, school, parents, being cool—yet who are also expected to be good, practicing Muslims who don’t date before marriage, who avoid vulgar popular culture, and who never miss their prayers.

Many Americans unfamiliar with Islam or Muslims see young men like these as potential ISIS recruits. But neither militant Islamism nor Islamophobia is the main concern of these boys, who are focused instead on juggling the competing cultural demands that frame their everyday lives. O’Brien illuminates how they work together to manage their “culturally contested lives” through subtle and innovative strategies—such as listening to profane hip-hop music in acceptably “Islamic” ways, professing individualism to cast their participation in communal religious obligations as more acceptably American, dating young Muslim women in ambiguous ways that intentionally complicate adjudications of Islamic permissibility, and presenting a “low-key Islam” in public in order to project a Muslim identity without drawing unwanted attention.

Closely following these boys as they move through their teen years together, Keeping It Halal sheds light on their strategic efforts to manage their day-to-day cultural dilemmas as they devise novel and dynamic modes of Muslim American identity in a new and changing America.


“Swift and insightful. . . . O’Brien effectively shows teenage Muslim Americans to be an unjustly persecuted minority, delving into the psychology of how they behave in reaction to their outsider status in order to paint a portrait of social anxiety and strained assimilation that is universal in its power.”Publishers Weekly


“A textured and insightful look into the lives of young American Muslim men.”–Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

Keeping It Halal is a sensitive, lucid, compelling portrait of the social complexity of male Muslim teen life. It should be read by anyone concerned with the way young people navigate complicated cultural terrains.”–Omar M. McRoberts, author of Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood

“Engaging and insightful. O’Brien provides rich descriptions of the cultural work these teenagers do in their efforts to be both good Muslims and fully American.”–Mark Chaves, author of American Religion

“The best ethnography of immigrant American youth to be published in many years. O’Brien writes with empathy, sensitivity, and analytical sophistication about people trying to manage the cultural tensions of being young and Muslim in American society.”–Mitchell Duneier, author of Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

Book review: Germany’s new public enemies? Stefan Buchen on Syrian “escape helpers”

August 4, 2014

Germany is proud of its culture of democracy and the rule of law. But how proud should it be of the way it treats those who help Syrian refugees threatened by starvation and mass murder at home to enter the country? In 2013 and 2014, several German-based Syrians have been tried in court for helping their compatriots to flee to Europe. Stefan Buchen has written a book about the matter. By Martina Sabra

Over 11 million Syrians are on the run from war, hunger and death. Most of them are in Syria or the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Only a few hundred thousand want to flee to Europe – a minority. Yet the EU has sealed its borders, with entry visas now almost impossible to procure.

This is why these people’s only option is often to risk life and limb by entering the EU illegally. They need support to get into Europe. The people who help them are known in German as “Fluchthelfer” (escape helpers). They arrange false papers, transport, food, clothing and accommodation for them and co-ordinate the various stages of their escape. These people have to be paid.

Smugglers or helpers?

In German, people who help others to escape from one country to another are called “Menschenschmuggler” (people smugglers). Some of these smugglers are primarily interested in profit and pay little attention to whether their “customers”, the refugees, arrive safely at their destinations. Yet there are also escape helpers who aren’t motivated by money but by the fact that it is their relatives, friends or acquaintances who are asking them for help.

This distinction ought to be significant in legal terms in Germany of all places, where many people only survived or made their way to freedom thanks to escape helpers during the Nazi dictatorship that lasted from 1933 to 1945 and the era of the Berlin Wall, which lasted from 1961 to 1989.

Yet that is far from the case. Although it is perfectly clear that a terrible war is raging in Syria, Germany is treating Syrian escape helpers like serious criminals – even if they can prove that they have acted out of humanity. German judges, state prosecutors and politicians have publicly branded Syrian escape helpers as supporters of terrorism and accused them of crimes they have not committed.

For their part, many media outlets unthinkingly spread these prejudices, branding escape helpers as “unscrupulous human traffickers” or “murderers” and contributing to the destruction of people’s professional and social existences.

Operation “Cash”

What that can mean in specific cases is the subject of a new book, as gripping as it is disturbing, by the German TV reporter and Middle East expert Stefan Buchen.

The story Buchen tells begins on 29 January 2013. On that day, the federal police in Berlin and the state prosecution department in the city of Essen announced that they had smashed an “international people-smuggling gang” as part of a Europe-wide operation.

Under the codename “Cash”, they reported that homes had been searched and suspects arrested in 37 places across Germany. The GSG 9 task force was deployed in the town of Ahlen in Westphalia. Arrests were also made in Greece and Poland. The “head of the gang”, according to the press release, was a 58-year-old Syrian living in the west German city of Essen. The authorities estimated he had made a 300,000-euro profit out of the activities. Although they didn’t find any cash, the police seized his family home.

Tendentious investigations, groundless accusations

Stefan Buchen, who writes for Germany’s highly respected political TV programme “Panorama”, knows Syria well. The way the police and the state prosecutors present the case made him curious. Were the suspects really serious criminals out to make a quick buck?

Buchen researched extensively, conducting numerous interviews with all those involved and working his way through mountains of files relating to the investigation. Gradually, a very different picture emerged: the “head of the gang” was not a professional human trafficker, but an engineer who went to work every day and had nothing to do with aiding escapes until the outbreak of war in Syria in the autumn of 2011.

War in Syria blocked out

But the judges and prosecutors see things differently. They insist on applying rulings on foreign residents and entry to the country, clinging to the letter of the law. They systematically block out the genuine threat that causes Syrians to flee their country. “The political character of this trial is the total de-politicisation of the situation,” writes Stefan Buchen. “A highly political process with far-reaching moral implications is assessed purely according to the standards of criminal law.”

The will to depoliticise the matter is also oppressively apparent in the lawyers’ phrasing: the Operation “Cash” court records refer to refugees as “individuals willing to be smuggled”; the war in Syria is not referred to as such, but as “the escalating political situation”.

He also points out how courts dealt with people smugglers in the 1970s, in the context of the divided Germany. One West German escape helper, for instance, successfully sued for his “fee” before a court in 1977. A family from East Germany, whom he had helped to escape, had tried to get out of paying part of the sum they’d agreed. Ironically, the “fee” that the West German judges awarded to the escape helper at that time was higher than the “fees” of the Syrian escape helpers today, in relative terms.

Duplicity in politics and media

Buchen also denounces the duplicity he sees in politics and the media. They claim that drastic measures are necessary to protect refugees from traffickers, he writes. But in reality, Europe has blocked almost every legal way in. “Smugglers offer a service in exchange for money. Refugees call on this service when they realise that there is no other, easier, less dangerous or less expensive way out of danger for themselves or their families,” he notes.

By the same token, he points out that none of the accused ever set out to become “smugglers. “They came to this activity because they have ties to Syria and because the war in Syria caused a terrible refugee tragedy. The accused smuggled Syrian refugees only, no one else.”

The investigations and verdicts have had drastic consequences for all the escape helpers on trial and their families. The engineer, now 60, lost his job and had to pay a penalty of over €150,000; a Syrian-French taxi driver was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment; a young Syrian-Greek father who worked as a waiter is also behind bars, separated from his wife and three children.

One of the book’s strengths is that the author gives an impressive and emotional presentation of his personal encounters with those involved, while also handling the subject matter and vocabulary very precisely.

Some of the legal material is rather complex for lay readers. Nevertheless, the book is extremely readable and gripping – an enthralling read that raises many important questions on the relationship between what is right, what is legal and what is moral in Germany.

Book review: Youth Tsunami in Arab World: ‘The New Arabs,’ by Juan Cole

July 8, 2014

These days, alarming news continues to spill out of the Middle East. Syria’s continuing civil war has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Iraq — where the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has stoked sectarian conflict by refusing to form an inclusive government — is hurtling toward civil war, as Sunni militants, led by the Qaeda splinter group ISIS, have moved close to Baghdad. Farther east, the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan.

In his book “The New Arabs,” however, the Middle East scholar Juan Cole provides an optimistic assessment of a new generation coming of age in the region. Mr. Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, gained recognition in the prelude to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and in its wake, with his “Informed Comment” blog, which was not only highly critical of Bush administration policies but also provided illuminating historical and social context for the war and its devastating aftermath.

“The New Arabs” focuses not on Iraq, but on the Arab Spring, and in particular on the role that youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya played in bringing down the authoritarian regimes in those countries. “Young people are the key to the rapid political and social change in the Arab countries that have been in turmoil since 2011,” Mr. Cole writes, arguing that members of this “Arab Generation Y” are more literate than their elders, more urban and cosmopolitan, more technologically savvy and less religiously observant than those over 35. Echoing what the veteran Middle East reporter Robin Wright wrote in her 2011 book, “Rock the Casbah,” Mr. Cole contends that “a new generation has been awakened” and that a positive new historical dynamic is taking hold.

Mr. Cole’s book is at its most illuminating when it takes the reader inside the youth movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, showing us how activists used technology and social media to amplify their message and connect with like-minded citizens across the region. Although this phenomenon has already been widely covered by Western media, Mr. Cole chronicles it in fascinating detail here, recounting the stories of prominent dissidents and their often pioneering use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and cellphone technology to network and organize.

The creation of YouTube in 2005 and the growing reach of satellite television (most notably Al Jazeera) also gave dissidents important tools. In 2006, the blogger Wael Abbas began posting graphic videos, taken secretly, of Egyptian police brutalizing their prisoners, which provoked public outrage. And in Tunisia, videos of the police opening fire on young protesters — who had turned out in the streets after a fruit vendor burned himself to death (in December 2010) in response to being humiliated by government officials — received thousands of views and fueled the spread of demonstrations across the country.

In Egypt (where, according to The C.I.A. World Factbook, 49.9 percent of the population is 24 or younger), disgust with the Mubarak government had been building for years. Among the events that created “links and networks among a diverse group of leftist and Muslim fundamentalist organizations” opposed to Mr. Mubarak as an agent of the West, Mr. Cole says, were demonstrations in early 2003 against the coming United States invasion of Iraq and the Gaza war of late 2008 and early 2009.

Mr. Cole’s conclusion to this book is a hopeful one. He writes: “The youth revolutionaries of the Middle East inspired their peers throughout the globe by their ideals of liberty and social justice and their collective action techniques. Fundamentalist movements seeking to take advantage of the political opening to impose new forms of theocratic authoritarianism suffered severe setbacks at the hands of the same youth activists.”

Dispelling myths about British Muslims

June 21, 2014

Many people have come to regard Muslims as a backward group of religious extremists estranged from wider society and incapable of coming to terms with what it means to be British. This impression has been heightened by misleading press reporting and inflammatory statements from senior politicians. The so-called “Trojan horse” controversy concerning an alleged Muslim takeover of Birmingham schools – based on what looks like a fabricated document – has brought fresh ugliness to an already putrid public debate.

There are elements of truth in the popular narrative about British Islam, but much of it is based on ignorance. A 2011 Demos survey showed that Muslims are more patriotic than other Britons (83 per cent said they were proud to be British as opposed to 79 per cent of the general population), and are more integrated than is often thought to be the case. So the publication of these two books could not be timelier. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen and The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani.

Innes Bowen, a BBC radio journalist, has written an admirable and clear- headed study which has much to teach anyone with an interest in British Islam. She explains the beliefs, historical background and political engagement of the main Muslim sects and organisations: Deobandis, Barelwis, Tablighi Jamaat, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Shia and Ismailis.

Bowman dispels a long list of myths about the role of Saudi teaching in mosques, the influence of Iran among British Shia (very little), the connection between the doctrines of Tablighi Jamaat and terrorism (none), and the alleged shortage of British-born imams (there are plenty). Bowen’s book is gentle and optimistic. She suggests that over time there is no fundamental contradiction between Islam and the modern Western state.

Arun Kundnani has written a very different kind of work. It is angrier and more polemical. Yet it too is grounded in research from both sides of the Atlantic. The case studies from the United States are shocking. He shows how Muslims there can be ensnared by the FBI into so-called plots which have been devised by the US government, arguing convincingly that Islam has taken over the role of public enemy from communism. It dispels myths, pointing out that “there is no Islamic doctrine of ‘kill the unbelievers’ as anti-Islam propagandists often maintain. Islam, like other religions, provides a broad moral framework for thinking about questions of violence.” Again and again this book challenges your assumptions. It is worth reading for its examination of the word “extremism” alone. Martin Luther King, Kundnani points out, was denounced in this way. Kundnani is fiercer and more pessimistic.