Richard Shweder and students study how Muslim-American communities adapt Islam
to U.S. culture.
sisters from a Muslim family attend the same college. The older one starts dating
a non-Muslim boy she meets in class. The younger sister is angry because she wants
her parents to arrange her own marriage with a boy from their Orthodox Muslim
community. If the community finds out that the older sister is dating, especially
a non-Muslim, it will hurt the family's reputation and make it difficult for the
younger sister to marry. The older sister refuses to stop dating her classmate.
by Lloyd DeGrane
a young "liberal" Muslim living in a Chicago suburb disapprove of the
older sister's decision? What about a religious elder in the more "conservative"
Muslim community of Lewiston, Maine? Their reactions can help explain how America's
fastest growing religious minority is adapting Islam to contemporary U.S. society,
says Richard Shweder, the William Claude Reavis professor in the Committee on
Human Development. Shweder and a group of Ph.D. students plan to use such hypothetical
conflict scenarios to examine modes of social and moral reasoning and to learn
how processes of cultural adaptation and resistance actually work for members
of various Muslim-American communities.
to the State Department, Muslims in the United States now number about 6 million,
compared to fewer than 500,000 three decades ago. Unlike some Hasidic Jews and
Christian Amish, most Muslims, Shweder says, do not want to withdraw from mainstream
American society to continue their way of life-which raises the question of how
they adapt Islamic practices to a liberal democratic society. Similarly, Shweder
wonders, how does a liberal-democratic establishment react to Islamic groups whose
cultural beliefs and practices collide with those of the mainstream?
adaptation concerned Shweder, who received his Ph.D. in social anthropology from
Harvard University in 1972, before September 11. Since the Cold War's end, Islam
has replaced communism as the primary perceived menace to Western democratic values
and society. After September 11, Shweder says, "President Bush worked very
hard to say we're a pluralistic society," but the cultural anthropologist
nevertheless detects a return to a "West is best" attitude, similar
to the 19th-century idea of the "white man's burden" to "tame these
savages" in underdeveloped countries. He blames the media for much of the
current ethnocentrism, recalling, for example, a newspaper headline after the
Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan: "Afghan Women Face the World,"
accompanied by a photo of newly unveiled Afghan women smiling-"as if they
had never smiled before."
part of a recent grant from the Carnegie Corporation-in June he was named one
of 11 scholars nationwide to receive $100,000-and funds from the Russell Sage
Foundation, Shweder and crew plan to interview members of three Muslim communities
that differ in nationality, social status, and immigration history: the Bosnian
population of the Islamic Cultural Center in Northbrook, Illinois; the Arabs and
Palestinians of Bridgeview, Illinois; and Somali settlers in Maine. They also
may study a fourth group of South Asian Muslims in North Carolina. The broad range
of communities will demonstrate how Muslims from countries that vary in cultural
practices adapt to American society.
student Heather Lindkvist, AM'97, has lived for almost a year near Lewiston-Auburn,
Maine (combined population about 64,000), immersing herself in a Somali refugee
community. She teaches English to adults, volunteers at a Somali social-service
agency, and participates in a "working group on immigration" in Lewiston.
She knows many of the women personally and is frequently invited to special celebrations
at the local mosque-a rented storefront.
Muslims there came by way of refugee camps in Kenya and then cities like Atlanta,
Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Early in 2001 they began to gravitate to Portland,
Maine, hoping to escape the drugs, gangs, alcohol, sexuality, and racial prejudice
in their original locations and to create their own, more sheltered community.
When Portland quickly ran out of housing, officials at a city shelter directed
the immigrants to Lewiston-a 98 percent Caucasian town that now houses almost
1,000 Somali Muslims, Lindkvist says. The Maine Somalis govern themselves through
a council of elders, which has enough authority to punish and even banish wayward
youths. Concerned about the influence of modern America on their children, the
Somalis asked the local schools to allow their daughters to opt out of certain
physical-education exercises and showers in locker rooms, which the Somalis consider
her ethnographic case study of the ways this devout Muslim group holds on to its
culture, Lindkvist also will conduct the same cognitive interviews-including asking
subjects to respond to the hypothetical scenarios-as her colleagues in the other
Ph.D. student Karen Ahmed, AM'00, for example, will interview members of the Northbrook
Islamic Cultural Center, who say they have a fairly liberal approach to Islam.
While about 60 percent have Bosnian origins, 40 percent have Middle Eastern or
West Asian ethnic backgrounds. Most live in the northern Chicago suburbs, work
in professional occupations, and voluntarily came to the United States for educational
or economic reasons.
research associate Craig Joseph, AB'88, PhD'01, will build on his dissertation
work in Chicago's southwest suburban Bridgeview. With a substantial Arab and Palestinian
population, Bridgeview has a large mosque, an Islamic coeducational preschool
through 12th grade school, an all-girls elementary school, and Muslim shops and
the three researchers' coordinator, Shweder is helping them to develop the cognitive
interviews. The trio plans to interview young and old community members to learn
how flexible the different groups' Muslim-American identities are. Could a woman
forgo the veil and still be Islamic? Eat pork? Marry outside the religion? Another
topic concerns moral judgment and social reasoning, such as the hypothetical situation
with the two sisters. How do Muslims' responses to that and other compromising
situations vary across the communities? And regarding liberal democratic thought:
how do Muslims react to fundamentals such as the separation of church and state
or the distinction between the public and private spheres?
clashes are not new to Shweder, who coedited (with Harvard Law School's Martha
Minow and Stanford University psychologist Hazel Markus) the essay collection
Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies
(Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2002). He contributed an essay on female circumcision,
arguing that Western liberals have been quick to label the practice "mutilation,"
though some medical and demographic evidence suggests otherwise. "Being slow
to judge others can sometimes be useful policy," he says. The essay will
be reprinted in Shweder's forthcoming Harvard University Press book Why Do
Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology.
work on a book tentatively called When Cultures Collide, Shweder is exploring
the United States' simultaneous yet polar tendencies toward assimilation and diversity.
Informed in part by the Islamic community studies, the book will draw on legal
cases such as the 1878 Supreme Court decision that upheld the legislation abolishing
polygamy, forcing Mormons to conform to national norms, and the 1972 Supreme Court
case allowing the Amish to keep their children out of public schools. "Why
did we make room for the Amish but not for the Mormons?" Shweder asks. Most
of his Carnegie grant will fund that project.
an ideal world, he says, Muslims should be able to take part in everyday American
life while maintaining their culture and beliefs. The United States should make
room for people who don't want their daughters to dress provocatively, who want
to pray at midday, who don't drink. "If you believe in the political culture
of liberal democracy as I understand it," Shweder says, "it should be
possible to be a cultural nationalist"-with pride, commitment, and dedication
to the way of life and traditions of one's country-"as well as a multiculturalist-or
at least a willingness to live and let live."