Expert Commentary

Muslim Americans and cultural challenges: Research roundup

2016 collection of research and reports focusing on Muslim-Americans.

President Barack Obama visits a mosque in Baltimore, Maryland, Feb. 3, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama visits a mosque in Baltimore, Maryland, Feb. 3, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As of 2016, there were about 3.3 million Muslim Americans living in the United States, comprising about 1 percent of the country’s total population, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. Globally, there are more than 1.6 billion Muslims, spanning diverse countries, regions and ethnicities.

While Muslim immigrants to the U.S. are frequently of African and South and Southeast Asian origins — and “Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous — many come from Arabic-speaking countries. The Migration Policy Institute notes that immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (Muslim, Christian and other religions included) currently number about 1 million, making up about 2.5 percent of all foreign-born residents of the United States. Among the countries of origin within these regions, as of 2013, most immigrants hail from Iraq (201,000), Egypt (176,000) and Lebanon (124,000).

Migration from the Middle East to the United States began more than a century ago, although many in the pre- and post-World War I era were from the many Christian minorities that still dot the region. A second wave (1948-1965) were mostly elites, still many Christian, from places such as Egypt and Syria; while post-1965, when immigration quotas were lifted in the United States, many more Middle Easterners of the Muslim faith began coming to America.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, political issues relating to Muslim Americans have filled headlines, and more recently have been the subject of heated rhetoric and competing claims in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Researchers, meanwhile, have sought to understand the distinctive ways in which this broad group – which hails from many different countries, all with their own unique sub-cultures – has settled in the United States, assimilated into myriad communities and continued to understand its own hybrid identities.

Issues of discrimination, as well as potential radicalization spurred by global terror groups, are front and center in public discourse, but there are many other important issues, from education to economics, that might be explored by news media. The following studies provide nuance and texture to issues relating to Muslim Americans that go well beyond the political claims and the news headlines. The digital newsbook, “Islam for Journalists,” is another helpful resource for media professionals.


“Citizenship Denied: The Racialization of Muslim American Men and Women post-9/11”
Selod, Saher. Critical Sociology, April 2014. doi: 10.1177/0896920513516022.

Abstract: “The racialization of Muslim Americans is examined in this article. Qualitative in-depth interviews with 48 Muslim Americans reveal they experience more intense forms of questioning and contestation about their status as an American once they are identified as a Muslim. Because Islam has become synonymous with terrorism, patriarchy, misogyny, and anti-American sentiments, when participants were identified as Muslims they were treated as if they were a threat to American cultural values and national security. Their racialization occurred when they experienced de-Americanization, having privileges associated with citizenship such as being viewed as a valued member of society denied to them. This article highlights the importance of gender in the process of racialization. It also demonstrates the need for race scholarship to move beyond a black and white paradigm in order to include the racialized experiences of second and third generations of newer immigrants living in the USA.”


“Psychological Research with Muslim Americans in the Age of Islamophobia: Trends, Challenges, and Recommendations”
Amer, Mona M.; Bagasra, Anisah. American Psychologist, April 2013. doi: 10.1037/a0032167.

Abstract: “Like other minority groups in North America, Muslim Americans have been largely ignored in the psychological literature. The overwhelming pressures faced by this group, including surveillance, hate crimes, and institutional discrimination, stimulate an urgent need for psychologists to better understand and ensure the well-being of this population. This article reviews challenges in conducting research with Muslim Americans in order to offer recommendations for culturally sensitive approaches that can enhance the growth of future scholarship. We first contextualize this endeavor by assessing trends in psychological scholarship pertinent to Muslims in North America over the past two decades. A total of 559 relevant publications were identified through a PsycINFO database search. The 10 years post 9/11 saw a more than 900 percent increase in the annual number of publications, paralleling a national interest in the Muslim American community subsequent to the World Trade Center attacks. Researchers who conducted these studies faced numerous barriers, including unclear definition of the target sample, unavailability of culturally sensitive measures, sampling difficulties, and obstacles to participant recruitment. To navigate these challenges, we provide a framework for effective research design along the continuum of the research process from study conceptualization to dissemination of results. The challenges and recommendations are illustrated with examples from previous studies.”


“Mosque-Based Emotional Support Among Young Muslim Americans”
Nguyen, Ann W.; et al. Review of Religious Ressearch, December 2013. doi: 10.1007/s13644-013-0119-0.

Abstract: “Despite a growing literature on social support networks in religious settings (i.e., church-based social support), little is known about mosque-based support among Muslims. This study investigates the demographic and religious behavior correlates of mosque-based social support among a multi-racial and ethnic sample of 231 young Muslims from southeast Michigan. Several dimensions of mosque-based support are examined including receiving emotional support, giving emotional support, anticipated emotional support and negative interactions with members of one’s mosque. Results indicated that women both received and anticipated receiving greater support than did men. Higher educational attainment was associated with receiving and giving less support compared to those with the lowest level of educational attainment. Moreover, highly educated members reported fewer negative interactions than less educated members. Mosque attendance and level of congregational involvement positively predicted receiving, giving, and anticipated emotional support from congregants, but was unrelated to negative interactions. Overall, the study results converge with previously established correlates of church-based emotional support.”


“Religion, Cultural Clash, and Muslim American Attitudes About Politically Motivated Violence”
Acevedo, Gabriel A.; Chaudhary, Ali R. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, September 2015. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12185.

Abstract: “Does adherence to Islam predict attitudes about ‘suicide bombing’ among American Muslims? This study examines the effects of religious and political factors on views of politically motivated violence (PMV). We draw from diverse scholarship, emphasizing arguments that are inspired by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations perspective, as well as recent work in the sociology of Islam. Using a measure that gauges support for ‘suicide bombing’ from the 2007 Pew Survey of American Muslims, results from logistic regression models suggest that political views and religious factors have a minimal effect on Muslim American attitudes toward suicide bombing. Furthermore, we find that Qur’ānic authoritativeness (i.e., the view that the Qur’ān is the word of God and not written by men) is associated with lower odds of supporting this form of PMV. We discuss the implications of our findings for the often anecdotal and alarmist accounts that link Muslim religiosity to support for ‘radical’ extremism. We close with study limitations and avenues of future research.”


“Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11: Representational Strategies for a ‘Postrace’ Era”
Alsultany, Evelyn. American Quarterly, March 2013. doi: 10.1353/aq.2013.0008.

Excerpt: “The representational mode that has become standard since 9/11 seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one, what I refer to as ‘simplified complex representations.’ These are strategies used by television producers, writers, and directors to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex, yet they do so in a simplified way. These predictable strategies can be relied on if the plot involves an Arab or Muslim terrorist, but are a new standard alternative to (and seem a great improvement on) the stock ethnic villains of the past. I argue that simplified complex representations are the representational mode of the so-called postrace era, signifying a new standard of racial representations. These representations often challenge or complicate earlier stereotypes yet contribute to a multicultural or postrace illusion. Simplified complex representations have taken numerous forms in TV dramas and news reporting, some of which I outline here to highlight the various mechanisms through which positive imagery of Arabs and Muslims  can operate to justify discrimination, mistreatment, and war against Arabs and Muslims.”


“The Original Web of Hate: Revolution Muslim and American Homegrown Extremists”
Levin, Brian. American Behavioral Scientist, June 2015. doi:10.1177/0002764215588815.

Abstract: “Before the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leveraged the Internet into a truly modern quasi-state propaganda machine through horrendous online videos, travel handbooks, and sophisticated Twitter messengering, more humble yet highly effective precursors targeted youthful Western Muslims for radicalism, during a time when home grown plots peaked. These brash new entrants into the crowded freewheeling world of extremist cyber-haters joined racists, religious extremists of other faiths, Islamophobes, single issue proponents, as well as anti-government rhetoriticians and conspiracists. The danger from these evolving new provocateurs, then and now, is not that they represent a viewpoint that is widely shared by American Muslims. However, the earlier successful forays by extremist Salafists, firmly established the Internet as a tool to rapidly radicalize, train and connect a growing, but small number of disenfranchised or unstable young people to violence. The protections that the First Amendment provide to expression in the United States, contempt for Western policies and culture, contorted fundamentalism, and the initial successes of these early extremist Internet adopters, outlined here, paved the way for the ubiquitous and sophisticated online radicalization efforts we see today.”


“Arab American Protest in the Terror Decade: Macro- and Micro-Level Response to Post-9/11 Repression”
Santoro, Wayne A.; Azab, Marian. Social Problems, May 2015. ISSN: 0037-7791.

Abstract: “Arab Americans have borne the greatest brunt of government and non-state repression in the aftermath of the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001. In this study, we document how post-9/11 repression affects Arab American protest at the macro and micro level. Coding articles from the Detroit Free Press (1999–2010), we find at the macro level that Arab American protest in the Detroit area spiked in the aftermath of 9/11 and that there is a strong temporal relationship between anti-Arab/Muslim hate crime and protest. At the micro level, results from the Detroit Arab American Study (2003) show that personally experiencing repression enhances protest participation most strongly for those whose Arab identity is not especially salient. We interpret this finding to mean that such individuals experience repression as a moral shock and/or quotidian disruption and hence such encounters especially motivate them to protest. This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that repression can be especially mobilizing for those who under other circumstances would be least likely to protest. Our study pushes theorizing about repression by highlighting that the state is not the only actor who represses; that repression need not target protestors to affect the possibilities of protest; and that state and non-state repression is often tightly coupled for racial and ethnic minority populations.”


“American Muslims Stand up and Speak out: Trajectories of Humor in Muslim American Stand-up Comedy”
Michael, Jacklyn. Contemporary Islam, July 2013. doi: 10.1007/s11562-011-0183-6.

Abstract: “Muslim American stand-up comedy is a unique response to post-9/11 negative social discrimination where socially critical comedians debate the stereotypes and realities of Muslim American life. Thus they continue an American minority tradition of engaging with American social life through public humor. The analysis draws from functionalist theories of the sociology of humor in order to discern the intended social messages of jokes that are meant to entertain and also educate. It shows how Muslim American comedy intends to influence opinions held not only about Muslims but also among Muslims. The paper suggests how competing forces related to being Muslim and American undercut the critical public humor of comedians who use these performances to argue what American Muslims should be saying and doing in order to advance their cause for social justice.”


“Relationships of the Practice of Hijab, Workplace Discrimination, Social Class, Job Stress, and Job Satisfaction Among Muslim American Women”
Ali, Saba Rasheed; Yamada, Torricia; Mahmood, Amina. Journal of Employment Counseling, December 2015. doi: 10.1002/joec.12020.

Abstract: “Religious discrimination in the workplace has received little attention in the research. The present study is an exploratory study that investigated the impact of workplace discrimination on a self-selected sample of diverse Muslim women living across the United States (N = 129). The results of this study revealed that workplace discrimination, job stress, social class, and religiosity were related to lower levels of job satisfaction. Implications of the results are discussed in terms of clinical intervention strategies.”


“Hyphenated Selves: Muslim American Youth Negotiating Identities on the Fault Lines of Global Conflict”
Sirina, Selcuk R.; Fineb, Michelle. Applied Developmental Science, 2007. doi: 10.1080/10888690701454658.

Abstract: “In the wake of the events of September 11, Muslim-American youth found that the multiple cultures within which they live were suddenly and alarmingly in conflict. The developmental consequences of living in a world fractured by religious and ethnic terror have yet to be determined for Muslim youth in the United States. This exploratory, mixed-method study begins to examine how Muslim youth negotiate their identities in these challenging times. Documented in the surveys, narrated in the interviews, and drawn into their identity maps, Muslim-American youth (n = 70) ages 12 to 18, vividly portrayed their interior lives as a dialectic labor of psychological reconciliation — piecing together what we call hyphenated selves. The results show that Muslim youth experience discrimination, sometimes to an extreme degree. We observed diversity in how youth deal with the challenges of growing up Muslim in post 9/11 US, ranging from ‘telling nobody’ to policing each other within the Muslim community. In addition we found that males and females negotiate their Muslim and American identities in different ways.”


“Exploring dual identification among Muslim-American emerging adults: A mixed methods study”
Selcuk R. Sirina; Nida Bikmenb; Madeeha Mira; Michelle Finec; Mayida Zaalc; Dalal Katsiaficasa. Journal of Adolescence, April 2008. doi: doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2007.10.009.

Abstract: “This mixed methods study explored dual identification among Muslim-American emerging adults of immigrant origin. A closer look was taken at the relationship between American and Muslim identifications and how this relationship was influenced by experiences of discrimination, acculturative and religious practices, and whether it varied by gender. Data were gathered from 97 Muslim Americans (ages 18–25) who completed a survey and produced identity maps, a pictorial representation of hyphenated identities. The findings showed that young people found a way of allowing their Muslim and American identities to co-exist, and only a small minority of the participants seemed to experience identity conflict. While religiosity was the only predictor of Muslim identification, young peoples’ identification with mainstream United States culture was predicted by discrimination-related stress and acculturative practices. Gender moderated the relationship between Muslim and American identities in both survey measures and identity maps.”


“An Exploration of Cultural Identity Patterns and the Family Context among Arab Muslim Young Adults in America”
Brittoa, Pia Rebello; Amerb, Mona M. Applied Developmental Science, 2007. doi: 10.1080/10888690701454633.

Abstract: “While many studies have explored cultural adaptation and development and its correlates among adult Arab immigrants to the United States (U.S.), little empirical work has focused on Arab youth who were raised in the U.S., particularly Arab Muslim young adults. The present study explores cultural identity patterns and the sociodemographic and family contexts of 150 Arab Muslim American young adults ages 18–25 who completed an Internet study. The participants fell into three cultural identity groups: High Bicultural, Moderate Bicultural, and High Arab Cultural. Although all three groups demonstrated positive general family functioning, the Moderate Bicultural group was distinct in that they were less likely to be engaged or married, and they experienced less family support and more family acculturative stressors. The results highlight the importance of the family context in contributing to a stronger sense of cultural identity for young adults who fall at the intersection of Arab and American culture and Muslim faith.”


“Waves of Immigration from the Middle East to the United States”
Foad, Hisham S. San Diego State University, Social Science Research Network, December 2013. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2383505.

Abstract: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been three waves of immigration from the Middle East to the United States, roughly defined as a first wave from the late 1800’s to 1924, then a second wave from the mid 1940’s until 1965, and a third wave from the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act until the present. How accurate are these categorizations? In what ways has immigration from the Middle East to the United States changed over the past century? This paper addresses these issues using Census data from 1980-2011, covering immigration cohorts from 1910 through 2011. I find key differences in immigration both across source countries and arrival cohorts. There has been a general downward trend in the education and income levels of immigrants since 1965, most notably for countries with large refugee populations. The effects of ethnic enclaves depend on characteristics of the enclaves as well as immigrant arrival cohort. In general, living in an ethnic enclave is associated with lower educational outcomes and income, though the effects are reversed for high skill enclaves as well as enclaves in which immigrants hold executive and managerial positions. Furthermore, the negative effects of ethnic enclaves depend on the arrival cohort, with enclaves having potentially positive effects for the most recent arrival cohorts, but a negative impact on immigrants who stay in the enclave years after their arrival.”


Keywords: Islam, Quran, Koran, Sharia, hijab, civil rights, discrimination, cultural identity


Journalist’s Resource would like to thank Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, for his help with this post. 

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