Review: ‘The Convert’ by Deborah Baker

by Kim on May 17, 2011 · 23 comments

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In 1962, Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, an American Jew living in New York, picked up her life and moved to Lahore, Pakistan, a convert to one of the more political and extreme forms of Islam. She took the name Maryam Jameelah and went to live with the Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, her mentor and man who helped lay the intellectual ground for radical Islam to take root.

In The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker attempts to reconstruct Maryam’s life through an extensive collection of letters, drawings, and political writing archived at the New York Public Library. In her explorations, Baker uncovers many unsettling truths about Maryam and her life, including an unhappy childhood, periods of mental illness, and her eventual fate as the second wife of a political extremist in Pakistan. Even more effective, Baker extensively quotes the letters, giving Maryam’s voice an immediacy and impact a straight biography would have missed.

I found this book very unsettling, both because of how foreign I found Maryam’s religious and political beliefs to be and because of the way Baker built this story much like a detective — slowly revealing details about Maryam’s mental heath and the motivations of those around her, shifting the portrait the book was painting dramatically as it progressed.

I initially started reading this book with an idea that reading Maryam’s story would somehow be able to explain the idea of jihad, of political Islam in its present form. That made the early stages of Maryam’s lonely childhood and the disclosure of her mental illness disturbing to me — as if, somehow, the book was making an equation between converting to Islam and a being a weird, anti-social, mentally unstable person. But as I read I realized the book doesn’t do that. It’s better to read it as simply one woman’s experience and leave broader judgments about political Islam to other books.

Even so, reading Maryam’s religious beliefs articulated in her own writing was difficult for me. I like to think I’ve always had a sort of laissez-faire attitude about political and religious beliefs — I have mine, you have yours, and we can both exist just fine if we leave each other alone. If you don’t have anything nice to say about a group of people, don’t say anything at all.

Yet the fundamental mindset of political Islam is entirely different from that (as is that of other extreme forms of most religions or political associations). In an early letter, Maryam wrote that her mission was to,

… devote my life to the struggle against materialistic philosophic-secularism and nationalism which are still so rampant in the world today and threaten not only the survival of Islam but the whole human race.

As articulated by Maryam and her mentor, the Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, Islam and the West cannot exist in the same world as one another, and the only way for Islam to survive is by destroying all that is evil about the West. Mawdudi is one of the major figures responsible for articulating the idea of violent jihad. As Baker explains it,

Al-Jihad fil Islam has begun as a simple virus of an idea, a reading of the genetic code of an entire faith that, several decades on, had mutated into something far more virulent and less susceptible to negotiation. We were all not witnesses to the world-wide contagion. Mawdudi’s proposed jihad would not stop once the Indian subcontinent had rid itself of its British overlord or when Pakistan became a proper Islamic republic. “Islam requires the earth,” he proclaimed in 1939, “not just a portion, but the whole planet.”

It’s a fundamental position I have an impossibly hard time understanding, and one that reading about from a person who started out “like me” (female, living in the United States), is both fascinating and unsettling.

However, I also had some questions about Baker’s methodology and the way she inserted herself in the book. I believe she was trying to write Maryam’s story to reflect her experience researching — letting the reader go with one assumption and then dramatically shifting it later in the story as new facts came to light. This made the book even more unsettling; any assumption the reader started with almost inevitably shifted. I almost want to read the book over again knowing what we found out late in the story to see how it changes some of my impressions.

There was also a sense of betrayal in this approach, as if the rug got pulled out under my feet as I was reading in a way that I didn’t enjoy. This style opens up quite a bit for discussion, particularly the question of whether a nonfiction author, by articulating the fictions created by a person they are profiling, is writing nonfiction or just perpetuating a warped story. I’m not sure the answer to that one, but it’s curious.

As for a proper “review,” I’d recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in the rise of political Islam or religious biographies. This isn’t a straight-forward narrative, and not one that should be read as any sort of definitive history of political Islam. It’s just one woman’s story, but through that character Baker has written an intriguing book, one that left me thinking and pondering after I finished it.

Luckily for me, I received a copy of this book from the publisher to read as part of BOOK CLUB, hosted by Jen (Devourer of Books) and Nicole (Linus’s Blanket). We’ll be discussing the book at Linus’s Blanket today, so I urge you to stop over and check out the discussion — I think the book provides many, many things to talk about and I can’t wait to consider it with other people.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Other Reviews: Devourer of Books |

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