Mosques, Social Networks, and the Political Engagement of Muslim-American Women

From the Daily Mail

Guest post by Aubrey Westfall

After the two deadly domestic terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, politicians and journalists searched for an explanation for how and where the terrorists, two US-born men and one foreign-born woman, were radicalized. Right after the Orlando attack, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested an easy answer when he called for surveillance and potentially closure of mosques as a means for preventing terrorist attacks. A growing body of work engages with the relationship implied by Trump, and explores the link between the American mosque and political and social integration. In a recent article in Politics and Religion my co-authors and I explore the way religious behaviors such as headcovering and mosque attendance influence the political engagement of Muslim-American women.

Our findings suggest that the American mosque can contribute to social networks that either stimulate or suppress broader political participation. Using data from an online survey of 1,917 Muslim-American women, our findings suggest that the frequency of mosque attendance is associated with the formation of two distinct types of social networks, and that these social networks have different effects on the probability that our respondents will vote or belong to a political party.

Amongst our respondents, mosque attendance, along with other visible religious behaviors like headcovering, corresponds with the formation of social networks that are predominately Muslim. In other words, women who regularly attend mosque are more likely to report that a majority of their intimate friend network is made up of Muslims and/or women who wear the Muslim headscarf. The mechanism behind this relationship is intuitive: Mosques help Muslim Americans meet and befriend other Muslims.  However, these networks may not be conducive for promoting political participation, as our data reveals that more Muslim-dominant social networks are associated with a lower probability of voting or belonging to a political party.

We suspect that this negative relationship is the result of political learning within homogenous social networks – as our survey respondents’ informal friend networks are more exclusively Muslim, they have limited exposure to political ideas and life experiences outside the Muslim community. This, combined with general social hostility towards Muslims, leads to insularity and disengagement from the wider social and political community.

We also find support for a positive relationship between mosque attendance and political engagement amongst our respondents when the relationship is not mediated through social networks. The Muslim-American community is extremely diverse, and the mosque tends to be at the center of interactions between diverse communities, which may increase the exposure of mosque attendees to important forms of political learning and result in increased political participation. For example, when a Muslim attends mosque in the United States, they are likely to encounter other Muslims from different classes, sects, generations, and ethnic backgrounds – according to the 2011 Mosque Survey approximately 97% of mosques assemble members of mixed ethnic backgrounds. Exposure to this kind of diversity gives mosque attendees an opportunity to interact with and develop political sympathy for people with different kinds of social problems like poverty or discrimination.

At the individual level, religious people often see community service as a faith-based practice, and this association transforms religious institutions into community service-providers. The women in our sample affirm this interpretation, and suggest that their religious communities are important service providers and forums for informal political participation. This rhetoric is not foreign to other religious groups in the United States who often see community service as both a religious and political obligation. Consequently, it is unsurprising that mosques, like churches and temples, are forums for political education and mobilization in the United States.

There is also evidence of an institutional effect, where mosques themselves are important vectors of community cohesiveness. The Muslim-American community has visibly and actively built bridges between faith communities, through organizing interfaith conferences and activities. According to the data gathered through the US Mosque Survey 2011, mosque leaders embrace flexible interpretations of religion to adapt it to modern social circumstances and promote Muslim involvement in American society. A majority of mosque leaders (56%) reported adopting a flexible approach to interpretations of the Qur’an and sunnah, with only 11% following the classical legal schools of thought. The survey findings also showed that mosque leaders almost unanimously support Muslim involvement in American society: 98% agreed with institutional involvement and 91% agreed with political involvement of Muslims.

A 2004 ISPU report on mosques also noted a more activist stance since September 11th and a turn toward more inter-faith outreach. Strong mutual support between the Jewish and Muslim communities in recent months provides an example of this outreach. Interfaith efforts create bonds between communities that might not otherwise interact, and these activities connect individual congregants with the wider community, thereby encouraging and incentivizing participation. These multiple mechanisms could all explain the positive relationship between mosque attendance and political participation that we find in our data.

Ultimately, rather than being sites of radicalization, American mosques are more likely to be cites of civic inclusion. Rizwan Jaka, chairman of the board of trustees at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Mosque, communicated the implications of this inclusive mission in an interview with National Public Radio host Tom Ashbrook on December 9, 2015: “ISIL recruiters are telling their potential targets to stay away from the mosque, because they know that the mosque is an immunization to radicalization. The mosque is the first line of defense. ISIL recruiters are saying ‘your mosque is a sellout’.” Jaka highlights the role the mosque plays in discouraging radicalization — Religious leaders condemn regularly condemn political violence and community members adopt self-policing practices like confronting those who express radical ideologies and communicating concerns about radicalization to law enforcement officials.

Our findings suggest that the American mosque could contribute to social networks that either stimulate or suppress broader political participation, depending on the social composition of the mosque. Where they encourage the formation of diverse social interactions, they encourage inclusion and participation. In this respect the mosque is not much different from the role churches have historically played in the United States. However, we should not take this relationship for granted. Mosques facilitate civic participation because of the diversity of the Muslim population and their deliberate effort to connect with the wider community. Efforts to exclude Muslims, or institutions that isolate ethnically or denominationally distinct groups of Muslims risk compromising the civic participation of an important minority population and undermining notions of democratic pluralism.

Aubrey Westfall (PhD, University of Colorado, Political Science) is an assistant professor of political science at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She  specializes in comparative politics and international relations with research focusing on the political experiences of minority groups in North America and Europe. She is a co-author of a forthcoming book with Cornell University Press entitled The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States, which has an anticipated release date in early 2018. 

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