Born in St. Louis, Umar Lee (né Brett Darren Lee) converted to Islam at the age of seventeen, and was quickly drawn to its stringent Salafist form, and to Islamist political radicalism. He subsequently broke with extremism, although he remains a committed Muslim. In conversation with Dexter Van Zile, Lee discusses his own experiences—including a recent visit to Israel—and his observations about Islam in the U.S.
Islamism is no longer popular. Back in the day, it was very popular. . . . I attribute that to reality—the failure of the Arab Spring, the disaster of what happened in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Islamist politics has become so unpopular in the Muslim world that historians in 100 years are going to write that there was a 40-year period—from the mid-to-late seventies until the late 2010s—of Islamist political revival that faded away after the Arab Spring. In the U.S. we don’t see people talk about Islamist politics.
Conversion had some negative consequences [for me]—a period of extremism and Islamist politics—but it also kept me out of trouble and away from a criminal lifestyle. You have to remember that a very high percentage of guys who grew up where I did ended up addicted to drugs, or alcoholics. Many didn’t live to see forty and quite a few didn’t make it to twenty-one. For all of the problematic aspects of the Muslim experience in America, there is a track record of conversion keeping some men off the streets and clean.
On the subject of how American Muslims fit into contemporary political divides, Lee comments:
What you’re increasingly seeing in the Muslim community in America is a gender divide. You’re seeing that progressive politics [are] very popular, especially with women, especially young women. We know after 9/11 there was [a] leftward shift in the American Muslim community. . . . But you’re [now] seeing an insurgency led by men, particularly younger men, that are rejecting this progressive shift. They’re rejecting it in very harsh terms and going very far to the right. What you’re seeing in the Muslim community is—especially the young people—the left, and now this segment of the far right, are really taking up all the oxygen and moderate politics is very unpopular.
Unfortunately, there is more uniformity when it comes to attitudes toward the Jewish state:
By far, the least popular thing you can do [in the Muslim community] is support Israel. I could get on video and drink liquor [or] smoke weed and people would say, “Hey everybody, no one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.” I could be in a [pornographic film] and people would say, “Hey, well, . . . ” But support Israel? That is the worst thing that you can do.
When it comes to Israel, everyone is still unhinged. It doesn’t matter what segment of the communities they’re in. There are very few rational people. And even the rational people I talk to, [who] agree with me in private, won’t say anything in public.