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A Quick Question 

Do American Muslims Want to be Involved in Public Life?

The quick answer: 
  Yes!  According to Ishan Bagby, "they can't afford to be isolated."

The longer answer:  Placards reading “Down USA,” and accounts of Muslim leaders justifying attacks on “the infidel” might lead some to conclude that Islam cannot be reconciled with American society. A 2001 study of American mosques shows otherwise. 

The study, titled “An American Mosque: A National Portrait,” concludes that Muslims living in the U.S. find much to admire in this country and are committed to its political process and institutions. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed said they strongly agreed with the statement “America is a technologically advanced society we can learn from.” Seventy-seven percent strongly agreed that “Muslims should be involved in American institutions.”

And although the study was conducted before the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, its principal author, Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Eastern Studies at the University of Kentucky, said he thinks the commitment to public involvement may well be higher today.

“Muslims are much more convinced they need to be politically involved, and not only on foreign policy issues,” said Bagby, who is Muslim. “Sept. 11 showed their vulnerability. They can’t afford to be isolated. They have to be understood.”

The study is part of a larger examination of American congregations by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research called “Faith Communities Today.”  The Muslim report is based on interviews with representatives from 416 of the nation’s estimated 1,209 mosques, and has a margin of error of plus or minus five percent.

But while American Muslims are committed to the political process, and to playing by its rules, they also hold critical views on American political and social policies. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. Muslims said they don’t view America as a model of freedom and democracy, and 67 percent said they “strongly agreed,” or “somewhat agreed,” that “America is an immoral and corrupt society.”

Interestingly, black Muslims, born and reared in the U.S., were slightly more critical of American society than immigrant Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia. Bagby said this was not surprising given the inequities African Americans have endured in this country.  But in the wake of the Sept. 11, and the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act, it’s likely the number of immigrant Muslims who disapprove of U.S. government policies has grown too, he said. Many Muslims, subject to profiling and otherwise singled out for special treatment by U.S. law enforcement authorities, may view American freedom and democracy in an unfavorable light.

Muslim dissent is especially strong when it comes to American attitudes toward sex, drugs and alcohol. Though the study did not ask specific questions about those issues, Bagby said they lie at the heart of Muslim claims that American is an immoral society, and often serve as stumbling blocks to increased Muslim participation in public life.  Many Muslims oppose sex outside of marriage, frown on dating and abstain from alcohol.

“Sept. 11 helped Muslims overcome their resistance to involvement,” he said. “But while they’re getting involved, there’s an uneasiness, a concern. They don’t want to lose their souls by compromising Islamic moral standards. They fear involvement may make it easier for their children to adopt American popular culture.”

The study shows a similar dynamic at work in mosques. Muslims are committed to meeting with members of other faith groups and telling them about Islam.  Among those interviewed, 71 percent said they had visited a school or church during the past year to give a presentation on Islam. Seventy percent said they had contacted the media to explain their faith.

But while Muslims want to increase knowledge and understanding of Islam in American society, they are just beginning to venture into social service projects outside the mosque.  According to the study, only 37 percent of Muslims interviewed said their mosque had participated in social service projects. Immigrant mosques were least likely to undertake these initiatives. When tabulated according to ethnicity, 58 percent of African American Muslims participated in such projects, while 32 percent of Arab Muslims, and 26 percent of South Asian Muslims, took up such activities.

Immigrant mosques embrace the idea of involvement, but this has not manifested in social service projects outside the mosque,” Bagby said.

Finally, there is evidence American Muslim society is in transition. The majority of U.S. Muslims arrived in this country over the past 20 years. As new leaders emerge, changes will follow.

“Right now, the leadership is first generation American, or first generation converts,” he said. “We are now coming to an end of one phase— the establishment phase, you might call it — and we’ll soon start another phase.”


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