My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind — and Doubt Freed My Soul

  • Amir Ahmad Nasr
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • July 8, 2013

Doubt, discovery and the power of the Internet.

The geopolitical upheavals of the past few years — particularly the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East — have produced a number of compelling narratives, many of which wrestle with religious faith and its real-world repercussions. Amir Ahmad Nasr desperately wants My Isl@m, a memoir of his years as a blogger of Middle Eastern issues,to be one of those narratives that spark widespread discussion about religion and politics. But his focus on his own philosophical turmoil, coupled with a lack of control over his own narrative, hobbles his ambition.

Born in 1986 and raised in Sudan before moving to Malaysia, Nasr started out as a devout Muslim, albeit one with some creeping doubts about his faith. He preferred not to pray multiple times a day, and the “ranting” of his more fundamentalist teachers about Israel and the United States made him uneasy. Nonetheless, he maintained his religious fervor even in the face of adolescence and its inevitable temptations.

But as Nasr’s teenage years came to a close, that fervor started to dim; like so many people (perhaps everyone, at one point or another), Nasr’s preconceived notions clashed against his experiences in the broader world. At this point, Nasr’s narrative begins to tremble under the weight of multiple plot threads. Not only does he devote copious space to his growing self-doubts, which paralleled his rising status as a blogger of the controversies rocking the Arab and Muslim worlds, but he also attempts to weave in lengthy digressions on world events and the history of Islam. While a more experienced author might create a seamless cloth from all that material, Nasr can’t quite pull it off, and his pacing feels too rapid at times, dilatory at others: This is a 330-page book that ultimately feels twice that length.

Exacerbating the situation is Nasr’s overheated prose style. “It lifted a cloud of smoke, and injected an alkaline idea-virus deep into the acidity of my consciousness,” he remarks at one point about a quote attributed to Voltaire. “And little by little, that alkaline notion would come to neutralize aspects of my inner reality, leading to a pivotal culmination.”

And what a culmination: Nasr’s faith gutters to a cold wick in a pool of melted wax, replaced by an ardor for secular humanism. He discovers Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the other so-called New Atheists, who all argue stridently against the role of religion in modern life. A few pages later, he has a witty French girlfriend and a sudden interest in the works of Immanuel Kant. Reading single lines of great philosophers’ work sends him into spasms of “revelation” about how the world really operates. In other words, after years of bravely pushing against the narrow boundaries of his circumstance, Nasr has finally evolved into that freshman in college who corners unsuspecting bystanders in the dorm kitchen and talks their ears off about his discovery of Marxism or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Journeys of self-discovery and overheated prose do have a place in the literary canon, provided there’s a worthwhile destination at the end of the narrative. Given his book’s emphasis on the Arab Spring, one expects Nasr to eventually participate in those uprisings in some way. Alas, that’s not the case: He blogs his impressions and interviews some protestors, but he doesn’t make the dramatic moves his burning passions would seem to demand. “The online juggernaut fought on,” he writes at one point, referring to the broad network of bloggers and Twitter users who streamed information about the demonstrations. A few pages later, however, he’s back to the philosophical ruminations, with little more than a few brief shout-outs to the brave citizens on the ground in Egypt and other countries.

By the final third of the book, Nasr has become increasingly devoted to reconciling his humanist viewpoints with Islam as a culture. The whole endeavor reaches its muddled and insular climax with him pledging to keep seeking the truth — in whatever form (so much for the New Atheists).

As a series of blog postings, Nasr’s work may have proven more effective. After all, blogging as a medium is preoccupied with self-preoccupation. As a piece of narrative nonfiction, however, My Isl@m could have benefitted from serious editing; as it stands, the book may appeal only to those with a high tolerance for philosophical meanderings.  

Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published by Adams Media in 2012.


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