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Q&A: Omar Mouallem on his book “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas”

Mouallem hopes this book will highlight the diversity of Islam.

Omar Mouallem is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, journalist, and University of Alberta lecturer.

In Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, Mouallem documents his personal journey visiting mosques across the Americas, and explores the surprising history of their communities. This journey proved challenging towards his own long-held personal beliefs, and even his sense of identity. The travel memoir will be released in September.

The Gateway reached out to Mouallem to talk about his book, travel experiences, and what his future holds. 

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: To start us off, could you give us an elevator pitch for “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas?”

Omar Mouallem: So the book is a travel memoir about the untold, ignored, and sometimes erased Islamic history of the Americas. This journey starts in Brazil and traces the lost history of enslaved African Muslims on the continent, and then works its way upwards to the Arctic, where there is a philanthropic community of Muslim refugees that have been pretty essential to the Inuvik area. 

The book explores not just history, but a lot of the present-day complications, triumphs, struggles, and tensions within various communities. Ultimately, the point of it is not just to show how long Islamic history is in the West, but to show its commonalities with Christian and Western culture, and how there really is no clash of civilizations — that is just a myth. 

It also shows the diversity of Islam. It is far from a monolith. It is quite varied — depending on not just denominations, but the ethnicities and regions that are involved. This book is a memoir, so it’s told through a personal lens and my own complicated relationship with the faith.

Q: Why did you write the book — what was your motivation behind writing it?

There are a few things, but the main one is that I felt like there is a crisis of intolerance in the world. There always is, but I think in particular in the Western world that has surprised me and shocked me. I felt like Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate had become mainstream not just in my lifetime, but in the last decade. Basically since the Ground Zero Mosque hysteria, and it just became this mainstream, popular movement. I was quite shocked to see the Canadian government in 2015, Stephen Harper’s government, loudly pander to anti-Muslim sentiments, and then to see Donald Trump get elected. Just seeing this rise of a populist scapegoating movement in the so-called West, the bastion of democracy and freedom and tolerance, kind of shocked me.

I also felt there was a gap between what people think Muslim culture communities are like, versus what they are actually like. I learned a lot as well; like I said I have a pretty complicated relationship with my Islamic heritage. I sort of toggle between identifying as a Muslim and not identifying as Muslim. I needed to understand my religious upbringing more as well. 

In the process of [writing this book], I grew to appreciate [my religious upbringing] a lot more. I just appreciate its permanence in my life more and realize there’s a lot of values that I cherish that are a lot of cultural things that I probably won’t be able to shake in my life that have a lot to do with my Islamic heritage.

Q: What did you find to be the hardest part of writing this book?

Thank you for asking that, it was not an easy book to write.

I am probably conscientious to a fault sometimes, so I was very afraid of committing this grave act of misinterpreting or misrepresenting other people’s cultures. So, my fear of misrepresenting other people’s cultures was something that I still have to grapple with. With my background in journalism, and as a travel journalist, I know how easy it is to parachute into another place, not be there for very long, and then write about someone else’s culture and get it wrong. I was very afraid of getting it wrong. I was doing it on a scale of just numerous countries, so the margin of error for misrepresentation was vast. I was extra careful with making sure that I understood the cultural context of what I observed. 

Also, I’ve never written anything of this length that was so heavily researched and reported. I’m not an authority on any of this. I don’t have any academic scholarship, I don’t have any background in Middle Eastern studies or religious studies history. So to go in and pretend ‘oh I can understand this because of my Muslim identity’ defeats the point, because the whole purpose of this book was to show just how varied Muslim identity is.  So I think that was the hardest thing — was writing it in an honest, nuanced,  and sensitive way.

Q: How did you choose which mosques you wanted to visit?

I traveled to more than 13 mosques — I think in Trinidad alone I probably went to 13 mosques. Throughout the book, more than 30 mosques are mentioned. I would say in total, I probably visited 50. The chapters are named after 13 mosques. 

I chose them because I thought that they are significant milestones in the history of Islam in the West, or because they tell us something very unique about the history and life of Muslims in the West.

Q: Did you have any places on your list that you wanted to include in the book but didn’t get to?

100 per cent. There’s a very strong Sufi Muslim community in Argentina that I really wanted to visit. I believe the Southernmost mosque in the Western hemisphere is in Argentina. I really wanted to go there, but time and money wouldn’t allow it. Another one would have been the Somali Muslim community in Minneapolis, which is important right now in understanding Islam in the West. Minneapolis is just such a unique and special community, so that was a hard one to leave out. 

Q: Did you have a favorite place, or a couple of places, that you visited? 

I quite like architecture. Some places I love because of the architecture alone. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was just one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. The Ismaili Center was in just such a gorgeous building, but I actually think the places I enjoyed the most were the most humble mosques, sometimes they weren’t even really mosques; they were rented spaces. 

I quite enjoyed my experiences with the Toronto Unity Mosque, which is this inclusive, queer-friendly mosque in Toronto. There’s a lot of care given to people’s safety. It didn’t start this way, but it caters to refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution based on their sexual identity and orientation. 

That mosque particularly resonated with me, that was the mosque where I felt like I am Muslim. If I can come here and feel like I belong, and get something spiritually satisfying out of this Muslim tradition, then I am a Muslim. That was the last mosque profiled in the book.

Q: Were there any primary pieces of literature that inspired your book?

Servants of Allah. That was that is a seminal book about enslaved Muslim history in the Americas. That is a book that will completely change your perception of Western history. It’s incredible. It makes the case that for example, blues music was heavily inspired by the recitation of the Quran, and sort of the traditional singing of Islamic prayer. 

There is a book called Old Islam in Detroit, which is very accessible. It’s written by Sally Howell, who is a scholar of Arab American culture and Arab-Americanist. She wrote an amazing book about the oldest mosques in Detroit, which is one of the most robust Muslim and Arab communities in the Western Hemisphere. Really, it’s a book about the oldest mosques in America and about how the first Muslim immigrants practiced their faith. You’ll find in a couple of chapters, Islam was very curiously Americanized and syncretized with Protestant traditions. Things like a collection plate going around the mosque and having Easter egg hunts in the mosque for the kids.

For me, I would have certainly had less of a complicated relationship with my faith — being someone who was born and raised in Canada and Westernized — if my childhood mosque looks anything like the mosques of the 1920s and 1930s. Which is an interesting idea that 100 years ago, I would have at least spiritually felt more comfortable.

Q: What is something new you hope your book brings to the literature world?

I tried not to write this in a way that focused so much on countries and borders, and more just on like regions. So I hope that in some strange way, this will sort of give a broader picture of what it means to be an American. When I say an American, I mean, someone who lives on greater American land.

I hope the book will debunk the prevalent nefarious, monolithic understanding of Islam, and even debunk the monolithic benevolence of Islam that a lot of Muslim people [understand]. I hope this book will show that it is quite complicated. There are a lot of issues in various communities that are quite unique, that need to be ironed out, that have to be ventilated and worked out.

Q: With anti-Muslim sentiment and hate being seen in the West, a lot of people blame this on the public’s misinformed or uninformed image of Islam. With your novel, what do you hope your book does for the public’s image of Islam? 

I hope that people will understand that Muslims are no different than any other faith community — they are no better or worse. They are no less human, they are no less prone to making mistakes and having triumphs than anyone else. I felt like people had actually lost sight that Muslim people are just like everyone else. That their mosques are just like every synagogue and every church. That the people have their disagreements, there is a push and pull between liberal and conservative values, and between the values of different ethnicities. 

I felt like Muslim people in the West were in need of humanizing, and that’s what I sought out to do. Humanizing doesn’t mean writing a glowing profile of communities. Humanizing means profiling people honestly, words and all.

Q: Once the book is out in September, what goals or plans do you have in your future?

I’m trying not to think too far ahead because I don’t know what will happen after this book. 

I just need to give this book time to take on the life that it wants to take on. This may lead to a next book on an adjacent topic, this might lead into a podcast or television show, or it may not lead to anything relevant, in which case the world is my oyster.

Areeha Mahal

Areeha Mahal is the 2021-22 News Editor and previously served as a Deputy Arts & Culture Editor and Deputy News Editor. Additionally, she is a second-year Biology and English student. When she’s not learning the Krebs cycle for the millionth time, Areeha enjoys stargazing, baking pies, and listening to Bob Dylan.

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