By Hussein Rashid
I first met Scott Korb in the summer of 2010. It was at a time in New York when the Islamophobia Industry was holding a fundraising drive by saying that building houses of worship and praying was un-American; saying they were vultures retraumatizing the city for their own personal gain and amusement would be too charitable. I was doing a lot of press at that time around Park51, and I get an email from Korb. He wants to do a piece on American Muslims. I am wary. There are all sorts of media instapundits emerging around Islam, and news reporters inserting themselves into that role; or worse, because Korb indicates he’s writing a longer piece, I fear he may be a cultural tourist, picking and choosing what he likes to create his vision of an American Islam.
He’s smart, and does the six-degrees of separation. He lets me know he spoke to Munir Jiwa, an advisor to Zaytuna College, and friend of mine from academic and community circles. Korb also reminds me that he co-authored a book with Peter Bebergal, a graduate school friend of mine. Then, he pulls out the Ebad card. Ebadur Rahman is a young man whom I know through the Islamic Center of NYU. He is an individual whom one automatically has respect for, and any friend of Ebad is to be treated with care. Korb was masterful in establishing his bona fides.
It is this care and attention to detail he paid in reaching out to me that I believe exemplifies his work on Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College. Despite being listed in the acknowledgements of the book, I have not spoken to Korb since that time three years ago, until the publication of the book. However, even at that point it was obvious that he understood the wariness and weariness of the American Muslim community. Any story he would tell would have to be about people, and to get to know people meant cultivating relationships and networks.
In the book, Korb does tell the story of people. Starting with Ebad, and then moving into his interactions with many of the latest batch of students. While there is a good deal of “great person” narrative, focusing on the founders of the school, there is also a lot of attention paid to the students. The Revealer ran an excerpt of one of my favorite moments in the book, when Korb and several students share their respective devotionals with one another: Mawlid and Easter.
For those of us who study Muslims in America, Zaytuna bears watching. We do not how it will evolve and what impact it will have American Muslim communities. What Korb has done for us is capture some of the earliest moments and students, so that we know what was on their minds at this moment. The book opens with discussions of 9/11 and Islamophobia. In 10 years, one hopes that the focus of the conversation is different.
Scott Korb is author of Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College (Beacon, 2013), The Faith Between Us (2007, with Peter Bebergal), and Life in Year One (2010). He teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts.
Hussein Rashid is an independent scholar, currently teaching at Hofstra University’s Department of Religion, and is a fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ispu.org). His research focuses on Muslims and American popular culture. You can find him at http://www.husseinrashid.com and @islamoyankee.