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Once Were Radicals (my years as a teenage Islamo-fascist)
Allen & Unwin, Australia,
by Irfan Yusuf
reviewed January 28, 2011
paperback, 310 pages, $22.95 in the U.S.
What would it be like to grow up in an Islamic family? What if you were growing up in Australia and were the only dark-complexioned boy at your school? What if you were regularly attacked by bullies just for being a Muslim?
It sounds grim, but Irfan Yusuf is an exceptional writer who is able to deliver his memoir with a deep sense of humor. He is able to walk us through the many facets of Islamic religion, culture, and politics because from the very beginning he was the curious type, the type that asked why, the type that would not accept pat answers.
Irfan was born in Pakistan to middle-class, educated Islamic parents who then moved to Australia when he was four. His mother insisted that he master Urdu and Islam while maintaining grades that kept him at the head of his class. His childhood persecution by Christians made him an ardent believer, but he also began to discover that Islam was not monolithic. Even among the Pakistani emigres who were friends of his parents there were differences in degrees of faith and adhesion to different sects. Most seemed happy just to be living the good life in Australia, and so worked at blending into the materialistic culture, just as most Christian did.
Irfan became an explorer. He read book after book on Islam, but the books did not agree. He heard the intense anti-Islamic propaganda of the West and was attracted by Christianity's kindler, gentler image. But when he joins the Christian Fellowship at his private (Episcopal) high school, he is ready to analyze Christian theology and finds it lacking.
The thing about Irfan is, he is Modern. So no matter how much he searches for the true Islam, he has a modern eye. Even when he demands that modern Islamic women wear traditional dress, or at least head-scarves, some part of him knows he is being a hypocrite.
Through Irfan you can meet dozens of Islamic schools of thought. You will meet Sunni and Shia and Sufi, but you will also learn that each of them has many sub-schools. Every nation, and sometimes every tribe, has its own cultural take on what it means to be a Muslim. You will meet men and women who think Islam is Peace, and those who believe it is Jihad, and those who think it should not get in the way of Money.
Every American should read this book, and not just to learn about one of the world's largest religious groups. Once Were Radicals is a lesson in humanity. One Prophet, One Text, a thousand interpretations, and a billion individuals.
Also, you will learn a lot of Australian vocabulary. They have a word for everything, including some that I could not quite cipher out.