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Keeping their religion

>> Richard Shweder and students study how Muslim-American communities adapt Islam to U.S. culture.

Two 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.

IMAGE:  Keeping their religion - photograph by Lloyd DeGrane
photograph by Lloyd DeGrane

Would 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.

According 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?

Muslim-American 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."

Using 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.

Doctoral 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.

The 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 immodest.

Besides 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 communities.

Fellow 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.

Meanwhile, 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 centers.

As 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?

Culture 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.

Beginning 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.

In 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."
- A.B.


  AUGUST 2002

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