Omar Mouallem’s “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas” is an account of the author’s journey as he understands the truth of Islam after growing up an atheist and discovers the diverse Muslim heritage in the Americas.
Growing up in Canada, Mouallem left the religion of his parents. He says he was a rebellious atheist from the time he was a teenager. As he went further and further away from the faith of his family, he brushed aside his mother’s admonition: “You were born Muslim, and you’ll die Muslim.”
In the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, he found himself dealing with growing Islamophobia. Eventually, in an era of “Rohingya and Uyghur genocides, ethnonationalism and misinformation,” the author writes, he felt “compelled to reclaim the thing that makes me a target.” And so he embarked on a journey that is as much about reclaiming his lost faith as it is learning about the diversity and influence of Islam in the Americas.
He travels to Salvador, Brazil, where he searches for Islam that arrived with the slaves from Africa, only to find that, due to early repressions, “it vanished from memory.” Now all that’s left is a “residue,” evidenced in practices such as wearing white robes.
He visits North America’s northernmost mosque, near the Arctic Circle in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, where Muslim immigrants have been living. He discovers that Muslims are popular with their Inuit neighbors for their good works, for giving schoolchildren free backpacks, for donating food to the elderly and much else.
He journeys to the Midwest to find the site of one of North America’s earliest mosques, a shed built in the Dakota fields near where Mouallem’s family first settled at the turn of the 20th century. He learns that local descendants of those early Muslims have all assimilated; Christians are now generously rebuilding the long-since-demolished mosque.
“Praying to the West” is a testament to his journalistic acumen, full of well-chosen and vividly rendered stories.
Mouallem is an educator and a successful journalist. He has written for mainstream publications in Canada and the US and won several awards. “Praying to the West” is a testament to his journalistic acumen, full of well-chosen and vividly rendered stories. The book is an illustration of how many people, often scattered and marginal, practice Islam in the Americas. He details their struggles to survive, to create a community or build a mosque.
Mouallem also presents the challenges Muslims face in the West as a victimized minority. He highlights the intertwining of Islamophobia, orientalism, and assimilation. “America’s unique brand of Islamophobia teaches us that Muslim piety equals savagery,” he says.