BeliefWatch: Reporting on America's Muslims

In the aftermath of 9/11, when the offices of The Wall Street Journal were temporarily moved from Ground Zero to SoHo, a young journalist sat at his desk and edited one story after another about the Muslim world abroad. Jihad this, fatwah that, Sunni, Shia, how do you spell hijab? "It occurred to me that I was almost entirely ignorant about Muslims in this country," he says, and like any good reporter, he was moved to find out more. So Paul Barrett picked up his laptop and hit the road, hoping to bring his investigative chops to a subject that few had ever approached with care: American Muslims.

Happily for us, the result is the book "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion," out this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Through seven profiles, including an inner-city imam, a philosopher and a feminist—Barrett (formerly a Wall Street Journal colleague of mine) paints a picture of Muslims that is, as he put it last week at a talk in Los Angeles, "no less diverse than Christians." His message is educational: Muslims are not monolithic. What you think you know about Muslims in Iraq or Holland or Indonesia does not apply here. In general, what you think you know about Muslims probably does not apply at all. Part of his reporting technique, he says, was to be open about his own Jewish religious background, to share a story about his bar mitzvah, for example. Since the publication of his book, in conversations with Muslim families across the country, he says, one subject comes up over and over: How to get the children into an Ivy League school. "They remind me so much of my own family," says Barrett, who went to Harvard.

Which is not to say that there aren't tensions. Israel is a difficult subject for many Muslims. "America's steady and unwavering support makes them angry," says Barrett. "Not all, but many." And on the fringes of American Muslim society, there are some "fundamentalist religious ideas that can sound pretty hairy when you hear them preached on a Friday afternoon."

In general, though, Barrett is an optimist. He believes the danger of home-grown terrorist cells is smaller here than in Europe, largely because American Muslims, like the Jewish and Catholic immigrants before them, came here for opportunity and advancement and in that realm, they're succeeding. As for finding common ground, Barrett recommends taking Israel off the table, agreeing to disagree and focusing on other priorities—like getting the kids into Harvard.