The Convert – Reviews

The Friday Times
Beyond Belief
C M Naim / November 25, 2011

Baker stumbled upon the [Maryam Jameelah papes in the New York Public Library] by chance, and at an opportune moment when the Jama’at, Extremism, and Jihad-not to mention Islam itself-had become hot button words in America. It was equally opportune for Jameelah that it was Baker who found her papers, and not some perfervid, jargon-struck academic. As an experienced writer, Baker rose to the occasion by deciding to tell Jameelah’s story more or less as it unfolded for her, honestly sharing with us her frustration as contradictory details-even deliberate deceptions-stumbled out. She has skillfully created a narrative that grabs our interest fast, and then compels us to read the book as avidly as one reads a good whodunit. Of course, in this case, it is not the question “Who?” but “Why?” that lies at the center. As expected, there is no single powerful answer. Nor does Baker ask the question so crudely. Placing before us any number of credible causes and explanations, ranging from the personal and familial to the global and ideological, she allows us to gain much from her insights while letting us come to our own conclusions.

It is a wise and engaging book that should generate many useful discussions in these troubled times. Most importantly, her book might make many readers more aware of one terrible feature of today’s discourse on terrorism. Presently it is as if a “terrorist” has only an ideology or religion that dictates her actions, while the rest of us could safely use family situation, peer pressure, mental or psychological issues and much more to explain our actions. Even the “Unibomber” had a psychological life, but not Major Nidal Hussain. In the latter’s case, his “Muslim” name explains everything.

Baker’s book was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. But it deserves much more attention than it has received so far. I have not heard her being interviewed on national radio and TV programs, and her book has not received much mention on the blogs that deal with Islam in South Asia. It is, however, a book that should be read by many, in particular by young Muslim men and women in the United States and South Asia. Not as a precautionary tale, but in order to obtain a more nuanced understanding of what they might be experiencing. Their present lives are filled with challenges that cannot be met with easily, and Baker’s book should help them discover that easy answers usually come at a heavy cost.