Author: Constant, Paul
Date published: June 10, 2010
Middle Class, Meet Middle East
An American Woman Becomes Muslim in The Butterfly Mosque
There's always one asshole who ruins it for everyone else. After 9/11, Americans who had even the slightest bit of curiosity about Islam had to struggle with the example of John Walker Lindh, aka the "American Taliban," the dumbass spoiled suburban kid who saw Spike Lee's Malcolm X biopic and took things, as dumbass suburban kids do, way too far. After Lindh was captured while fighting against American soldiers in Afghanistan, he became the poster boy for idiot liberal kids who flirt with an interest in Islam, and his example cast a shadow over even college students interested in the Koran as a work of literature.
Seattle author G. Willow Wilson was raised by two atheists, but as a student at Boston University, she eagerly slipped into Islam's orbit. In the opening pages of her new memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, after admitting that she "was in the market for a philosophy," Wilson makes a bargain with God: If he alleviates her intense allergy to the Depo-Provera birth control shot (symptoms included chronic sleeplessness, dizziness, and pain), she'll become Muslim. God does not help her. She becomes Muslim anyway.
Though Mosque mostly details Wilson's time living in Egypt as a young white American woman, and her courtship with and engagement to a Palestinian- Egyptian Muslim man named Omar, she repeats throughout the book how much she loves America, as if to prove that she is no Lindh. She loves Islam, too. Years before committing to the religion fully, she gets the words Al Haq-"the truth so true it had no corresponding opposite, truth that encompassed both good and evil"-tattooed across her lower back in Arabic. Finally, she secretly converts to Islam on the plane to the Middle East, before even setting foot on Egyptian soil:
But if conversion is entering into the service of an ideal, then I converted on that plane. In the darkness over the Mediterranean, in no country, under no law, I made peace with God. I called Him Allah... Cultural and political differences go bone deep, but there is something even deeper. I believed that. I had to believe it.
By page 50, Wilson is engaged to Omar and a committed Muslim. Most of Mosque describes the commonplace events that take place before a wedding-meeting the families, making living arrangements, determining what kind of lives you will live together. Despite the imminent enmeshing of two radically differing cultures, not that much happens. Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't provide enough insight into interpersonal relationships to really give moments like "coming out" as a Muslim to her parents any kind of drama.
Even more frustrating, she drastically undershares about aspects of her life that are unrelated to Islam. Wilson writes comic books (most notably the underappreciated Air for Vertigo comics), but we hear almost nothing about her (presumably lifelong) love of comics-except that she uncharacteristically squeals with glee when a friend brings her a stack of them from America. She never mentions it, or Omar's dismissive suggestion that comics in Egypt are only for children, again. Meanwhile, supposedly good friends are mentioned in passing and ignored.
If religion touches on every aspect of a person's life, as Wilson claims in the book, then we are missing a huge aspect of her spirituality by her reticence to include herself in her own memoir. We also don't learn how Wilson feels about her own past. She implies that she messed around in college, and even if she's not hiding a George-W.-level history of fucked-upedness, her American readers, who are probably coming from a Judeo-Christian perspective, would be interested to hear how she reconciles her pre- Muslim days with her present.
Still, there's a lot to recommend: Mosque becomes fascinating when Wilson focuses squarely on Islam. She is a gifted writer and scholar, providing specific details about how "Muslim women were in some respects freer in the seventh century than they are today" and how Islam at its core is "sexpositive," a place for "committed, sexually joyful relationship[s]." It's refreshing to see someone write thoughtfully and accessibly about Islam, the way Kathleen Norris addressed Christianity as literature in her great memoir of monkdom, The Cloister Walk. Wilson observes that the anti- Westernism that gives rise to international terrorism comes from the comfortable middle class of the Middle East, whereas the poor tend to stick strictly to "Muslimon- Muslim (or on Jew)" attacks. Her writing, too, about a solo trip to Iran, provides a slightly different, but still roundly American, perspective on a nation that could use a little humanizing.
Critics can spend the rest of their lives arguing over whether Wilson is living a life of cultural tourism, a safer, bourgie version of John Walker Lindh's extremism. The truth is that there's no satisfying way to solve that particular riddle; any suburban white kid emigrating outside the norm is going to have to live with those accusations. On the one hand, this book's level of nuance is perfectly targeted to the book-club crowd. On the other hand, it's a useful book: There are still plenty of people out there who need convincing that theirs isn't the only-or the best-way of looking at the world.