Thursday, June 17, 2004

A Portrait of Detroit Mosques

Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy Understanding, published a very informative study A Portrait of Detroit Mosques: Muslim Views on Policy, Politics and Religion (April 2004). The study is full of intriguing findings, from which activists have many things to learn.

To take just one example, one of the common stereotypes about Arab Muslims is that they are more conservative in terms of male-female relations than South Asian Muslims. A Portrait of Detroit Mosques shows that the reverse is true. The section on women's participation in prayers at mosques reveals that the median percentages of female participation in Friday prayers at South Asian mosques, Arab mosques, African American mosques, and mixed Arab/South Asian mosques are 5%, 15%, 30%, and 6% respectively (Bagby, p. 19). Moreover, "In most African American mosques, women do not pray behind a curtain, but in all South Asian mosques, women [pray] behind a curtain. Arab mosques are evenly divided on this question" (Bagby, p. 19). As for gender and mosque leadership, "In over three-quarters of Detroit mosques, women are allowed to serve on the governing board, and in 52% of the mosques, women serve on the board. As with the other issues relating to women, African American mosques are the most open, South Asian mosques are the most restrictive, and Arab mosques are in-between (Bagby, p. 20).

For activists on the left, the most promising finding of Bagby's research is that Detroit Muslims turn out to be very progressive on crucial social and economic issues: "The policy issue that received the highest favorable rating [among the four selected issues of health care, environmental protection, affirmative action, and income taxes on which respondents were specifically questioned] was 'Provide universal health care,'" nearly 75% of the respondents answering that they "[s]trongly favor" the provision of universal health care and about 16%, "[s]omewhat favor" it (Bagby, p. 49). Also, "88% favor tougher environmental laws" (60% strongly, and 28% somewhat) and 79% favor "affirmative action for minorities" (about 57% strongly, and about 22% somewhat) (Bagby, p. 49). Contradictory as it may seem, though, "the vast majority (73%)" also favor cutting income taxes, with 47% strongly favoring it (Bagby, p. 50). It points to the need of putting progressive tax cuts that favor the working class on the left-wing agenda, especially considering that "those who are most likely to strongly favor cutting taxes are the lowest income bracket (68%)" (Bagby, p. 50).

Not surprisingly, on all questions, African American mosques are the most progressive. Unfortunately, mosques are largely ethnically divided, but there is surely a great potential for expanding social intercourse and political cooperation between African American Muslims and Arab, South Asian, and other Muslims, especially on the question of civil rights and education, though even here differences remain: "[t]he civil rights issue tops the list of concerns for mosque participants," but "[i]ronically African Americans are the least likely (51%) to choose civil rights as a top priority. African American mosque participants say education is their top priority," while education ranks as the second priority among the all mosque participants who responded to the survey (Bagby, p. 48).

The largest gap between African American and other Muslims may be found on the issue of foreign policy. While African Americans are more consistently opposed to war and imperialism than Latinos, Asians, and whites, and African American Muslims are no exception in Black communities, foreign policy just isn't the top priority among them: "Support for foreign policy as a top priority is the weakest among African Americans (10%)," though among all mosque participants the issue rates as the third highest priority (42% making it the top priority) after civil rights and education (Bagby, p. 48). The gap suggests that, while Muslim anti-war and anti-occupation activists are likely to find receptive ears among African Americans, they should address foreign policy questions in the context of advancing the domestic agenda of social and economic justice to build solidarity between communities.

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