________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006


Being Muslim. (Groundwork Guides).  

Haroon Siddiqui.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, 2006.
160 pp., pbk. & cl., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-786-8 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-785-X (cl.). 

Subject Headings:

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up. 

Review by Joanne Peters & Raymond Sokalski.  

***1/2 /4 


Contrary to the popular belief that the West is under siege from Muslim terrorists, it is Muslims who have become the biggest victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001, as inconceivable as that would have seemed in the aftermath of the murder of 2,900 Americans. Since then, between 34,000 and 100,000 Iraqis have been killed by the Americans or the insurgents. Nobody knows how many have been killed in Afghanistan. In the spots hit by terrorists – from London and Madrid to Amman, Istanbul, Riyadh and Jeddah, through Karachi to Bali and Jakarta – more Muslims have been killed and injured than non-Muslims. 

The approximately 27 million Muslims living in Western nations have been targeted in other ways. They have been victims of racial profiling and frequent identity mix-ups at airports and border crossings, where they may be harassed and sometimes detained. Monitored by both the secret services and the media, they must be careful about what they say in emails, phone conversations and in public. They must think twice about keeping a beard or wearing overtly Muslim clothing and be mindful of their behavior in public. They must keep proving, in school and at work, that neither they nor their faith fit the caricature of Muslims and Islam drilled into the public consciousness.


The above excerpts are the opening paragraphs of “The Politics – Under Siege,” the first chapter of Being Muslim, one of four short but concise overviews of contemporary political and social issues, published by Groundwood Books. It’s a daring way to begin a book: “Islam . . . draws strong reactions from both defenders and critics. The two sides rarely talk, and when they try, they don’t listen to each other very well.” (cover). 

     When I began reading the book, I was taken aback by Siddiqui’s polemical tone. The editorial page editor emeritus for the Toronto Star, he is not afraid to challenge his readers. As I continued reading, I knew that I wanted another opinion, preferably that of someone with a strong interest in cross-cultural issues and an academic background in history and politics. Thus, this review is a collaborative effort between me and my colleague, Raymond Sokalski, a teacher of both the Grade 12 World Issues course and the Asia-Pacific Studies program for grades 9-11.  Additionally, Raymond’s work with Kelvin’s student group HASTA (Hopeful Aware Students Taking Action) has given him opportunity to work on social justice issues affecting Islamic countries and Muslim minorities. We live in a city which prides itself on its multi-cultural character, and, while both of us are adherents of mainstream Christian denominations, we also have a strong interest in and respect for other religious traditions.   

     Both of us found Being Muslim to be a highly-accessible guide to the faith, an exploration of the social and economic challenges faced by Muslims living in societies (both European and North American) founded largely on Judeo-Christian values, the role of women, and, inevitably, the politics of Islam in a post 9/11 world. Once we learned that the word jihad is more accurately translated as “struggle”, rather than as some sort of “holy war” or “crusade” (126-127), the opening salvo of that first chapter made sense: Siddiqui writes that “every Muslim must do jihad, and that struggle is a highly individual one. We who live outside of Islam struggle with our perspective, and Muslims must struggle with our misunderstandings and misapprehensions.   

     Siddiqui draws widely on his experiences as a journalist. He has visited many Muslim countries, has interviewed both Muslims and non-Muslims from a variety of backgrounds, and reminds the reader that terrorism has existed in a variety of forms in many different cultural and religious contexts. Raymond commented that “Siddiqui writes overtly from the perspective of one within the Islamic faith looking out, but as a Westerner, he does a good job of framing his answers using comparisons with “Western” dominated religions (Christianity and Judaism). . . His explanation of common Muslim phrases and etiquette as clues to Islamic attitudes toward life and destiny are particularly fascinating, as are his explanations of the role of culture versus religion in women’s activities and dress codes.” And Siddiqui tackles the really tough topics, offering a remarkably balanced overview of the range of opinions, especially within the Islamic community, on contentious issues such as the roles of women.  

     There are surprises in this book, too – “Laughing at the Siege” introduces readers to the world of Muslim comedy, and highlighted sections offer a variety of interesting facts: the difference between hijab and burqa, the logistics of providing food and water for pilgrims of the Haj, and Islamic references in Hip-Hop music, to name three. Both of us were impressed at the depth and breadth of content; Raymond commented that “one could be forgiven for wanting to hear more from Siddiqui about the role of violence in Islamic thought and about Muhammed’s as a warrior and military leader. Only passing references - in a timeline and a few sentences scattered throughout the book - are made to these aspects of this progressive prophet’s life.  However, we both agreed that the clear table of contents, the well-documented Notes pages, a list of “Essential Reading,” and the comprehensive index add value to the book as a concise reference work for students and teachers. 

     Being Muslim is an excellent overview for students in Grades 9 through 12, teachers of World Issues and cross-cultural studies courses, and for high school library collections. Raymond concludes this review: “All in all, the author does an admirable job of covering topics of great current interest within the confines of his readable, unextended format.  . . . As a social studies teacher, I look forward to taking the entire first section of the book as a study of current events and of the effective use of persuasive style in nonfiction writing. It would be ideal reading in preparation for a class debate on the issues it raises, especially since Siddiqui promotes viewpoints that are neither readily present nor as understandably expressed in the mainstream media. . . . The book is strong on dealing clearly and directly with current contentious issues involving Islam. Siddiqui is unequivocal and effective in exposing double standards and inconsistencies in contemporary media coverage of news stories in which Islam plays a part. One can only hope that a publisher sees the value in taking Siddiqui’s research and clear style and expanding the work into a more comprehensive contemporary treatment of Islam for high school students, perhaps by combining his work with that of other Islamic observers.” 

     Reading and reviewing Being Muslim provided much to think about. The school at which we teach has a significant Muslim population, and, after reading this book, we will both look at our hijab-wearing students in a quite different way. 

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB, where Raymond Sokalski also teaches. 

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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