Observant US Muslims more politically active: survey


By: Sharmila Devi

NEW YORK // Karam Dana, a Palestinian-born academic who has produced ground-breaking research on the political identity of Muslim Americans, often gets angry when he watches the US media.

“The media portrays Muslims and their places of worship as breeding grounds for terrorists and I end up thinking: are they crazy?” Mr Dana said after a 19-year-old Somali-American’s arrest on terrorism charges in November.

Undercover US federal agents had provided Mohammed Mohamud with a fake bomb to attack a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon in November. After his arrest, the Corvallis mosque he attended was firebombed. “The media don’t examine the psychological state of the young man, which could be a possible explanation,” Mr Dana said.

His frustration about the stereotypical image of Muslims being drawn into terrorism at mosques stems from the fact that he was one of the first US academics to produce empirical research proving the opposite.

He found that the more American Muslims attended a mosque, the greater their participation in US civic life. This central discovery is examined at length in a book to be released later this year by Mr Dana and Matt Barreto, his research partner, called Muslim and American: How Islam Shapes Political Incorporation in America.

The two men were the principal investigators in the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (Mapos), the largest survey of Muslims living in the United States to study the patterns of social, political and civic life. Conducted under the auspices of the University of Washington over two years starting in 2007, the survey interviewed 1,410 American Muslims in 22 locations across the United States.

The idea for Mapos came after Mr Dana, 31, noted the rise in Islamophobia in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001. He moved to the United States when he was 17, leaving his birth city of Hebron to pursue his studies. He now divides his time as a Dubai Initiative research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and teaching Middle East history and politics at Tufts University. The Dubai Initiative is a joint academic venture between the Dubai School of Government and the Kennedy School, which share their knowledge and resources.

Mr Dana said his knowledge of Islam combined with Mr Barreto’s expertise in statistics and experience researching the Latino community made a perfect partnership in Mapos. Their aggregate skills were needed to find and then examine the Muslim-American community, which is diverse in its ethnic, racial, and linguistic origins.

“American Muslims immigrated here at different periods and for different reasons. As a group, they are extremely professional and have a high socio-economic status without the typical immigrant story, although you can find it,” he said. “There’s no typical neighbourhood where you can find American Muslims. Some are African-American, some are converts.”

Most other polls are telephone surveys and find Muslims using names such as Mohammed or Ahmed. “That’s fine but they don’t find John Anderson who converted to Islam three years ago or many African-American Muslims who have ordinary names like many other Americans,” Mr Dana said.

He went to Eid holiday gatherings to find large numbers of American Muslims and interviewed them using a questionnaire.

“Eid is the one time when all Muslims come together and hang out regardless of their religiosity or how many times they attend mosque the rest of the year,” he said. “Eid was a mechanism for capturing the diversity of the community.”

Imams and Islamic community centres were contacted up to a year in advance to seek their co-operation. There was much mistrust, with Mr Dana saying he was sometimes asked whether he was from the FBI.

Respondents were asked 40 questions on topics ranging from their view of the compatibility of Islam with participation in the US political system to whether they registered or voted in the last election.

Mapos found that sectarian differences among Muslims living in the United States tended to erode with time. While Shiite Muslims tended to have a high level of political participation regardless of mosque attendance, Sunni Muslims became more engaged politically the more they went to mosque.

“Over time and with greater mosque attendance, the gap between Shia and Sunni in terms of political participation narrows and virtually disappears,” said Mr Dana.

But he was also troubled by the 28 per cent of respondents who registered nothing for their political affiliation, not independent, Democrat or Republican. This contrasted with the 2000 presidential elections, when American Muslims voted overwhelmingly for George W Bush.

He expected American Muslims to become more engaged with the US political process in the coming years and to see a correspondent recognition by politicians of the importance of American Muslims as a voting bloc. “There is a lot of talk about how we’re living in a post-racial society but the fact that a mosque relocating near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan can become a massive issue of national debate is problematic,” said Mr Dana, who was referring to the proposed Islamic centre and mosque near the World Trade Centre site in New York.

“As a society, we still need to talk about the other and our differences.”

The author of this article, Sharmila Devi, can be reached at sdevi@thenational.ae

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