Menlo College Hosts First Ever Muslim American Workshop

Menlo College Hosts First Ever Muslim American Workshop

Photo: Hector Salas-Selem

Muslim Americans are a growing segment of the American population. The Pew Research Center projects that the population-share of Muslims in the United States will double by 2050. Despite their increasing political relevance, however, very little is known about the politics of Muslim Americans.

Brian Calfano, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Journalism, University of Cincinnati; Nazita Lajevardi, graduate student, University of California San Diego, and Melissa Michelson, Professor of Political Science, Menlo College organized an all-day workshop at Menlo College to bring together interested faculty and graduate students to discuss how to generate data about this growing sector of America. The workshop was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The workshop was planned to foster professional networking relationships that will construct data generation and data collection to maximize usefulness by various scholars. A group of 30 political scientists from around the country were asked to focus on what they think they know, what they want to know, and how they will measure it.

Workshop attendees examined what would be helpful in a cross-sectional survey and gathered topics for further discussion, such as the difference between ethnic and religious identity. They questioned if Muslim identity was necessarily intertwined with religiosity, which includes numerous aspects of religious activity, dedication, and belief.

Other topics to consider for a survey included the impact of integration versus assimilation, intergenerational changes, environment, gender, regional parts of the community, and public versus private identity.

Physical appearance was added to the list of survey topics, when an attendee noted that his beard frequently prompted the question, “Are you Muslim?”

In 2015, there were 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. In recent years, attacks on Muslim Americans have become increasingly common, particularly since September 11, 2001, and have surged in response to episodes of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists and the political rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Islamophobia played a large role in the 2016 election campaign,” Michelson noted, “but it is an open question whether that generated more political interest or activity by Muslim Americans.”

“We have evidence that some Muslim Americans may be censoring themselves online, and even segregating to avoid drawing attention to themselves in public,” noted Lajevardi.

“There have been some well-funded quality surveys of Muslims in the U.S. over the years, but no regular polling of the community. This makes gauging any changes in political perceptions, attitudes, and behavior difficult,” said Calfano.

“Surveys of Muslim Americans are particularly challenging because the U.S. Census does not gather religious affiliation data. Thus there is no way to confirm whether data is representative,” Calfano noted.

Workshop participants also discussed the additional challenges that stem from the fact that Muslim Americans feel threatened by questions about their political attitudes and behavior, in part because of the reality of ongoing surveillance by law enforcement and the FBI.

Lajevardi shared a story of a face-to-face survey effort conducted in 2013, at an Islamic Community Center in Southern California. Even after the Imam vouched for her and encouraged congregants to participate, many declined to answer survey questions about politics.

These challenges suggest that a survey of Muslim Americans may be particularly time-consuming and expensive, according to the workshop organizers. They plan to focus efforts in 2017 on identifying possible funding sources. At the same time, subgroups of the working group will meet to plan focus groups and survey question wording.

The commitment made by the workshop participants to address the relative dearth of information about Muslim Americans coincides with an increasing recognition of the need to improve our nation’s understanding of this growing population within the United States. The workshop hosted by Menlo College is the start of a challenging but vital effort.