Unlike any other religious or racial identity, being Muslim in the 21st Century in Western Societies brings into question notions of conflict, belonging and citizenship. As a religion that transcends color, race, national origin, and language, studying Islam becomes more challenging than studying members of any other racial or ethnic group in a Western society. Without a common race, culture, and heritage that unify all Muslims in the West, learning about the political inclusion of this population poses a significant challenge to scholars, the media, and policymakers alike.
More importantly, how do we study a religious group, whose value system is being challenged and questioned on a regular basis. Now more than ever, it is crucial that scholars have a firm understanding of the patterns of compatibility or conflict between being a true Muslim and a true American. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the isolated, yet horrific events at Fort Hood in 2009, where does the boundary of being a Muslim begin and end in the case of Muslims in America?
Are there specific cultural and religious values that make Muslims unable to live and be “good” citizens in Western societies? Despite some calls from politicians, media outlets, and even think tanks that Islam is problematic in America, our theory and research uniformly reject this idea and instead we point to great opportunities for compatibility between religious Muslims and American values. To address this question, we examine the public opinion and political inclusion of Muslims living in the US. We measure their level of political engagement and participation in America, and assess whether being a devout Muslim inhibits ones level of support for, and participation in the U.S. political system.
Samuel Huntington (1993; 1996) and Bernard Lewis (2002a; 2004) both argue that Islam as a religion and a culture is incompatible with liberal, democratic and American values. Not only is Islam inconsistent with the West, but it poses a direct and significant conflict according to these scholars. This viewpoint has been popularized in American and European media and by government officials who declare fundamentalist Muslims as enemies of freedom and liberalism. In a U.S. Army War College strategic paper, Jack McClanahan assessed, “failure of the US to resolutely answer the challenge in the war of ideas in the Muslim world, will only result in increasing support for terrorism, leading to an escalation in terrorist attacks against the US,” (2002). However, it is not clear that the grounds of conflict are based on religious ideology. Are the most devout Muslims really opposed to political incorporation in the United States, or are other traditional non-religious factors such as socioeconomic status and acculturation more important in understanding political alienation? To date, nearly every study of Islam and Western values has been qualitative, anecdotal or philosophical in nature, leaving most questions unanswered, at least empirically (see Jamal 2005). In many ways, one of the most interesting, and also one of the most crucial political questions today remains, are Islamic principles compatible with the American political system?
To answer these questions, we fielded a public opinion survey of Muslim Americans to ask whether or not the teachings of Islam were compatible with participation in American democracy. In contrast to prevailing judgments, we find that more ‘fundamentalist’ or religiously devout Muslims are significantly more likely to support political participation in America. We argue there is nothing inconsistent with Islam and liberal democracy, and to the contrary, the most religiously devoted Muslims are the most likely to support Western democratic and participatory values because of their knowledge of and adherence to the teachings of Islam. This idea, that Islam teaches compatibility with liberal democratic values has been established theoretically by Abdul Rauf (2004), Swaine (2001; 2003), and March (2006; 2007), however it has not been tested empirically. This research project offers the first systematic empirical test, of arguably the most important cultural debate in the twenty-first century.
What’s more, the American public, major media outlets, and policymakers have little to no reliable data on which to draw when making judgments and assessments about Muslim Americans. There is a clear need for the dissemination of well grounded scholarly research, that is also publicly accessible–an overall goal of this research project.
Most studies of Muslims typically look at democratization and political participation in the Middle East and Asia. Relatively few efforts have been made to understand the patterns of social, civic, and political participation among Muslims in the United States, despite great increases in their population, citizenship, and civic participation over recent decades. One notable exception was the 2007 effort by Pew to survey and report on public opinion among American Muslims. While the Pew study was a nice starting point, a single study is hardly enough to gain an in-depth understanding of the complexities of Muslims in the U.S. Further, our survey and research study make many important improvements over the Pew study in research design including sample selection, participation and question design.
In this project, we bring together scholarship on the politics of race and ethnicity with literature on Islam and the West, to offer a new theoretical perspective to understand the political position of Muslim Americans. This theory has two principle components: (1) culturally and religiously, we argue that at its heart, the social contract of Islam encourages participation in democratic societies, so long as the participation does not prohibit the private expression of faith; (2) as a largely immigrant-based population in the United States, Muslim Americans can be understood through the lens of immigrant acculturation in which longer time/generations in the U.S. greatly increases political incorporation.
This preceding statement of purpose provides a comprehensive outline of a research project that we are currently in the midst of. However much work is left to be done, in particular in two key areas: first in bringing together leading scholars of American Muslim politics to commission further in-depth analysis of the survey data; and second, to disseminate as broadly as possible the findings of our research in an effort to inform the contemporary debates in the media and policy circles alike.
While other projects may propose roundtable discussions or work group sessions, our project is unique in that it builds on original social science data. Rather than just talking about Muslims, we are able to marshal data to bridge social science research with an aggressive outreach agenda to inform key stakeholders on the issues.
To this end, we propose the following activities:
- Creation of a website to centralize the data, papers, and policy reports for this project and effectively publicize and distribute our findings
- Creation of approximately 10 – 20 policy brief reports based on the findings of the research papers. These reports will take the data and findings and boil them down to a user-friendly format that can be widely distributed to the media, to policymakers, and to the general public
- Meetings and consultation with members of the city council and state legislature in each location where our study was carried out, to inform them of our findings, but also listen to them as to what they would like better information on regarding the Muslim American community
- Meetings and consultation with leaders of Muslim American Community organizations in each of the 11 cities where our research study was carried out
- Distribution of all findings to the media, through consultation with the office of news and information at both University of Washington and Harvard University, who will assist in the press releases
- Interdisciplinary conference of key policymakers and scholars to present research papers on Muslim American attitudes, opinions, political alienation, and political inclusion. To be held at the University of Washington, Seattle in Spring 2011.
- Coordinated panels to be held at multiple academic associations annual conferences, to present various papers on these topics to the larger academic community in each subfield including the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium (PRIEC).
- Planning meeting with Muslim Student Association (MSA) at each college campus where our collaborators reside to first present the findings to the MSA, but then to also enlist the MSA to help in the dissemination of the results to the wider university community to create an informed public debate about the Muslim American community
- Building on the discussions with community leaders and policymakers, we plan to extend our research to include a new public opinion survey of Muslim Americans, specifically posing new questions that we currently have no data on. What questions remain to be answered? What topics do policymakers understand the least and need help acquiring new data on?