American Muslims form a community that is largely invisible to the rest of mainstream America, a fact that casts them under a shadow of distrust and apprehension, speakers said in a lecture Tuesday at Harvard University.
Several lecturers addressed the issue of Muslim political and civic participation in the United States in a panel discussion before about 20 attendees at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.
Duke University associate professor of sociology and global health Jen'nan Read attempted to debunk the myth that Muslim-Americans are exceptionally different from other Americans.
"Most Americans seem to think that to be Muslim is antithetical to being American," she said. "There is a social construction that being Muslim dictates your political values."
Read said wealth, status, gender and degree of conservatism dictate Muslims' political attitudes significantly more than their religious affiliation.
Duke Director of Graduate Studies Katherine Ewing said that contrary to popular belief, Muslim-Americans are frequently politically liberal.
"One of their chief social concerns is keeping the family out of poverty," she said.
Ewing said American Muslims, for example, do not consider abortion a particularly important issue, as many conservative Christians do.
"Abortion hasn't played a big part in mobilizing Muslims as it has for Christians," she said. "Abortion is not an issue in the Quran, so they don't address it."
Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government and African and African-American studies at Harvard, said that in actuality, American Muslims have high economic and social status, contrary to their European counterparts, who she said are generally less educated.
"But they're outsiders in the U.S.," she said.
She drew a parallel between American Catholics and American Muslims.
"It took a hundred years for Americans to regard Catholics as Americans and not as loyal to the Pope," she said. "Today, we look at American Muslims in a similar way – as having more allegiance to Islam than America."
University of Michigan Department of Anthropology associate professor Andrew Shryock said he found such a belief largely untrue in the anthropological studies he undertook on the subject in Detroit.
"As transnational ties grow weaker over time, identification as Arab-American grows stronger," he said, referring to Detroit's large Arab population.
Jocelyne Cesari, an associate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, said she coordinated the panel in order to shed light on the substantial lack of literature on and public awareness of Muslim-Americans.
Harvard Divinity School sophomore Julie Rogers said she found the contrast between her own background and that of American Muslims of particular interest.
"Coming from a Christian tradition, I have a lot of questions concerning Islam, especially in how it relates to elected offices in the U.S.," she said.
HDS sophomore Maytal Sattiel said she attended the discussion after being recommended to do so in a class. Though she said she found it very interesting, she also thought the presentations were too factual.
"There was too much data. I would have liked to hear more personal stories and I think it would have been interesting if they'd talked about what they foresee happening with coming generations of American Muslims," she said.