What is the status of Muslim Americans in American democracy? Dr. Nazita Lajevardi’s superb new study concludes they are ‘outsiders at home.’
In Outsiders at Homes: The Politics of American Islamophobia published by Cambridge University Press in 2020, Dr. Lajevardi uses a combination of quantitative methods – including survey experiments, field experiments, and textual analysis of media transcripts – to find that the citizenship and inclusion of American Muslims is inhibited because Muslim Americans are viewed negatively by the public, portrayed negatively by the media, and treated negatively by political elites. The book portrays Muslim American citizenship as grudgingly bestowed and remarkably insecure – and highlights the extent to which American Muslims are aware of their exclusion and precarity and how that awareness affects their political behavior.
Dr. Nazita Lajevardi is an attorney and assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. Her research has been featured in The Atlantic, New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, and the Huffington Post. The book combines sophisticated quantitative methods with forceful prose accessible to all.
Many listeners may already agree that American Muslims face discrimination but one of the aims of the book is to reject reliance on anecdote and focus on the evidence. Lajevardi outlines the early history of Muslims in American (from the 16th and 17th centuries), their place in 19th and 20th century court cases that aimed to racialize and privilege whiteness, and the complexity of defining who is a Muslim American. In this way, she establishes the sociopolitical position of Muslim Americans before and after 9/11. Her methodological approach "a multidimensional account of hostility towards Muslim Americans" aims to move from selective anecdotes to reliable data. But that data is difficult to find because few polls asked questions about Muslim Americans before 9/11. The study of the Muslim community in the U.S. is hampered by this absence of data – and one of Lajevardi’s contributions is her remarkable assembling of data from other sources. Another obstacle to the study of the politics of Islamophobia is the lack of consistency – in scholarship, the press, elite narratives – as to who is a Muslim American. This is due, in part, Lajevardi argues, to the complexity of Muslim identity. Race, religion, and national origin are often conflated. Yet these cross-cleavages and intersections are essential to understanding the place of Muslim Americans in American political life.
The book is driven by three overarching questions. To what extent do Muslim Americans face discrimination by legislators, the media, and the general public? How do Muslims view themselves as a group within the U.S. sociopolitical context? What would it take to reduce discrimination against American Muslims?
To answer the first question, Lajevardi introduces a Muslim American Resentment (MAR) Scale to unpack public attitudes. She demonstrates how the wider American public view Muslim Americans and how these does attitudes matter in terms of shaping public preferences towards policies (such as increasing the surveillance of mosques and targeting Muslims at airport screenings) and representatives are elected. She then focuses on the prospects for political incorporation – particularly whether the MAR Scale affects the election of Muslim American officials or enhances Muslim Americans descriptive representation.
The first half of the book demonstrates how the negative views of the public towards Muslim Americans matter for vote choice and policy preferences. In the second half, Lajevardi turns to the lack of data on aggregate attitudes toward Muslims from abroad and Muslim Americans prior to the 9/11 attacks. She turns to the news media to provide a lens for assessing how Muslims from abroad and Muslim Americans have been portrayed to the general public – finding pervasive and negative attitudes toward U.S. Muslims among the wider public and in media coverage, particularly in the period after 9/11. She uses experiments to assess the effect of media portrayals on public attitudes and policy preferences affecting U.S. Muslims and interrogates how elites treat their Muslim constituents – all with an eye towards whether Muslim Americans might be fully included in the political process.
By the conclusion, Lajevardi has shown the pervasiveness of Muslim American resentment and discrimination. But also how Muslim Americans are deeply aware of these attitudes – and how that awareness of their outsider at home status affects their political standing. In her conclusion, Lajevardi is of two minds: optimism about possible coalitions (such as Muslim-Jewish alliances over Jewish cemetery desecration and the Muslim travel ban) and pessimism given the history of Muslims in American politics and the threats of further surveillance and violence after a future terrorist attack.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Her Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and her “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.