An interview with Zahid H.Bukhari, Director of the American Muslim Studies program at the Georgetown University, by Rita Rudusa.

You have conducted a study of Muslims living in the US[1]. What were your key findings about the distinctive characteristics of an average American Muslim?
During the Project MAPS we came up with five characteristics of the American Muslim community. But before describing them, I would like to say, briefly, that nobody knows the exact number of American Muslims, because this question is not asked in census. There are different estimates — some say there are about six million, in 1989, The New York Times published that figure. Some scholars contest it and think there are three million. Interestingly, Hollywood also mentioned American Muslims. In the movie Syriana one of the characters says that there are ten million. So, we are between three and ten million (laughs). However, there is consensus among scholars that numbers are growing.

How can you measure the increase?
If we take the number of mosques, the number of people attending prayers, immigration, birth rate and conversion — all variables show the numbers increasing. There are more than two thousand Islamic centers, around 300 to 400 full-time Islamic schools. But, getting back to the characteristics of the American Muslim community, the first one is diversity. In our survey, we asked people where were they born. 36 percent told us they were born in the US and 64 percent told us they were born abroad, in more than 80 different countries. No other country in the world has such diversity within its Muslim population. We also asked them if they were born Muslims or converted to Islam. One fifth converted in later life. We have indigenous Muslims, black, white, Spanish, and also immigrant Muslims. Among the immigrants, South Asian Muslims come first, 33 percent, but we have Muslims from all over the world. You can say that a small replica of the Muslim world is living in America. The other characteristic is that an average Muslim is better educated than an average American and also has a higher income.

They are also active, relatively religious, and politically savvy.

What do you mean by ‘savvy’?First of all, it is hard to pigeonhole American Muslims into the two categories, republican or democrat. On some issues, American Muslims are very conservative. For example, when it comes to family, marriage issues, their views are similar to those of the Evangelical Christians and the Republican Party. But on other issues, universal healthcare, immigration, welfare, fighting poverty, Muslims express very liberal opinion, closer to the democrats.

How do they make their political choices?
In the year 2000, when governor [George] Bush was contesting election for the first time, the majority of immigrants Muslims decided to vote for him. In the year 2004, after 9/11, after the beginning of war on terror and war in Iraq, after the Patriot Act[2] and deportations of Muslims, Muslims decided to support the democratic candidate. In other cases, the Senate and Congress elections, they decide on case-by-case basis. But in the last presidential elections, a major shift happened in the American Muslim community.

Do American Muslims, coming from so many different backgrounds, have a strong sense of community?
I think so. The role of Islamic centers is very different in the US than it is back home. At home, mosques are only used or prayers and then get locked, whereas in America Islamic centers and mosques are very much multi-purpose. They are used not only for prayers, but also for social activities, economic activities, educational activities, weekend schools, and political activities, they have started open houses inviting their neighbors; in other words, these are centers for all types of activities. Also, in the US, women are very much involved, which is another difference. After 9/11, new challenges appeared: propaganda, government crackdown, and also a sense of fear emerged in the Muslim community. There is a resounding sense within the community; we have to be together to face those challenges.

Would you say that 9/11 had a profound effect on American Muslims as a community?
Exactly! If it were not for 9/11, it would have probably taken the American Muslim community two more decades to start taking an interest in the issues of society, to get involved at the grassroots level. Social scientists cite five stages for communities to settle down in America. First stage immigrants take care of their finances and establish places of worship; second stage, they try to transfer their ideas, tradition and religion to the second generation; third stage, they take care of back home; fourth stage, they take care of their own issues in America, for example, discrimination; fifth stage is when a community becomes strong and mature and starts taking part in issues of society, police brutality, homelessness; all issues are my issues. Our research shows that, in normal circumstances, it would have taken American Muslims two more decades to reach the fifth stage. Because, to some extent, they are a new kid on the block, the majority of them arrived after 1965; the community is only four decades old. 9/11 pushed them and accelerated the process. For example, recently the first black Muslim became a member of the Congress.

Do you see it as a direct result of 9/11 and the processes that followed?
To a large extent, yes. There was a lot of pressure, discrimination, media scrutiny, and propaganda against Muslims. But Muslims responded by getting more involved in society, forming alliances, and getting elected.

In their daily lives, do American Muslims feel more discriminated after 9/11?
59 percent said they have faced discrimination. Some Islamic centers were vandalized; some women wearing hijab were verbally assaulted. Islamic centers document all such incidents and complain to the FBI. But Muslims do not only complain, they also learn how to work with the FBI on how to make them be more culturally sensitive. Also, after 9/11 Islamic centers started organizing open houses, inviting people from the neighborhood. So, they are facing discrimination, but also new opportunities arise for them. Before 9/11, media seldom paid attention to American Muslims and Islam, but now coverage media coverage is much bigger.

According to your survey, US foreign policy, for example, in Iraq or on war on terror, is very much at odds with what the Muslim community feels would be the right approach. Are Muslim leaders in contact with the government, are they trying to provide their perspective on these issues?
That aspect of US policy, war on terror and Iraq, does not just go against what Muslims desire but it also goes against American values, against American people. It is not a Muslim issue; the majority of American people have spoken against these policies. Muslims were overwhelmingly, about 90 percent, against the war in Iraq from the very beginning, but the majority of American people started opposing it later. We have been trying to convey a message — look, here is the Muslim community, they are well-educated professionals, and you can find professional experts in any field. So, they can be used as a bridge between the American foreign policy and Muslim world. Make them partners! However, making them partners would involve discussing the policy. Unfortunately there is no indication of any discussion. The State Department and policy makers have realized that the Muslim community is very important, but still their desire is that Muslims should become happy without changes in the policy. I do not think that is likely to happen.

An article about the Muslim community in The Los Angeles Times claimed that the influence of American Muslims goes beyond their numbers. Would you agree with that statement?
It is a very interesting issue. There are several aspects to it. Muslims in America are sending money back home thereby enhancing local economies. But it is not just money; they are also establishing institutions there. For example, doctors from America set up hospitals in Bangladesh with standards that match those seen in America. American Muslims are also participating in the global debate within the Muslim world, which had been going on even before 9/11. What are they learning in America? For example, that their behavior has to be more compromising, more tolerant. They have to be tolerant toward other Muslims, because there is so much diversity. In Islam, there are five different schools of thought, four Sunni and one Shiite school of thought. Elsewhere, it is very difficult for one school of thought to hold a prayer at a mosque of another school of thought. In America, the imam has to be tolerant. There is more tolerance and more compromise and all issues can be debated.

Would you say that American Muslims export those debates to the wider Muslim World?
Exactly! We live in a world of globalization and Internet. If there are debates going on in America you will find them echoed in Pakistan and vice versa. On certain issues, on how to live in a pluralistic society, how to live as a minority, the role of women, democracy, jihad, all those issues are being debated all over the Muslim world and all types of opinions are coming. And American scholars are contributing to it.

Considering that American Muslims, as you said, have jumped 20 years in the development of their community, where will they be in twenty years’ time?
I hope and I pray that they will become a model, as a minority, for all other Muslims. And they will also have their voices heard in the American political arena. My hope is that scholars in America will be contributing a lot to the debate within Islam.


[1] “Muslims in the American Public Square: Shifting Political Winds and Fallout from 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq”. Project MAPS, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Gergetown University , USA.

[2] “An Act to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.”