Interview With Gowher Rizvi on the Muslim American Experience

Interview With Gowher Rizvi on the Muslim American Experience

Muslim American immigrants were on a positive path taken by many previous immigrant groups prior to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to an eroding public perception of Muslim Americans at a time when they lacked well recognized institutions and leaders who could help respond to public concerns.

Gowher Rizvi, lecturer in public policy and director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, looks at the present and future of the Muslim American experience. He serves on the Task Force on Muslim American Civic and Political Engagement sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Q: Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, how would you describe the current experience of Muslim Americans?

Rizvi: I think that things have eased considerably. Muslims in the United States are much less worried than they were several years ago. But that said, things are far from normal in the sense that a whole culture of fear has been created in this country where Muslims often feel they have been singled out, targeted, and racially profiled at the airport and so forth. A number of Muslims have been arrested and not given the due process that is the right of every American citizen. So some of the problems remain, but on the whole things are settling down, and people certainly have a much better understanding of Muslims in the United States today then they had six years ago.

Q: How does the challenge of integration faced by Muslim Americans compare to other immigrant groups, both historically and in the globalized world today?

Rizvi: In some senses, Muslims in America face challenges that are not dissimilar to those faced by other immigrants over the last couple hundred years. However there is a major difference for two reasons. First, most Americans treat Muslims as a monolith, as one community and in some ways homogenous. But there are as many versions of Islam and Muslims as there are countries from which Muslims have migrated to the United States. So painting all Muslims with one wide brush does not really help.

Second, while all groups – the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese – have had initial difficulties integrating into the United States, Muslims, along with Jewish immigrants, face a special challenge. Muslims not only have a racial identity, they also have a religious identity.

Q: How does the Muslim integration experience differ in the US as compared to other countries?

Rizvi: Even though a lot has been said and written about the difficulties that Muslims have faced in the U.S., the truth of the matter is that the Muslims have done immensely better than their fellow religionists in Europe. In the United States there is still a very strong culture of merit where Muslims have been given opportunities in which they have done exceptionally well. There is, of course, always the proverbial glass ceiling, but overall Muslims in this country have done very well.

This is in strong contrast with France or Britain where there are a large number of Muslims, but they have not been able to assimilate fully into society. They have not been given access to opportunities and jobs for which their qualifications and expertise befit them. For those reasons Muslims in Europe are less settled. There have been instances of “home-grown” terrorists. So my own feeling – although this could change over night – is that by and large Muslims are doing exceptionally well in the United States and they are much more integrated here than they are in Europe.

Q: Political pluralism is one of the research areas that the Ash Institute addresses. How does studying the Muslim American experience fit in with the Institute’s broader goals of strengthening democracy?

Rizvi: The biggest challenge that democracy faces in the 21st century is how to adapt democratic institutions, processes, and constitutions to fit pluralistic societies. The Ash Institute is very much focused on this particular question of how democratic institutions can actually be adapted to take into account the particular needs of minority groups. For example, the United States has a long experience of affirmative action through which it has tried to integrate African-Americans. It is one of the great American innovations. I think the American democratic system will have to innovate further to make sure that all the different groups and minorities who are now citizens of the United States are fully integrated, their voices heard, and that nobody is excluded from the democratic process.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Rizvi: I think Muslims really need to play a greater role in U.S. public policy, commensurate with their numbers and their contributions to society. Muslims still feel that they are not properly depicted in the media, in the popular press. Muslims feel that they are not adequately represented in the federal and state governments. Muslims certainly feel that they are not adequately represented in the Congress of this country. So much greater representation is something that needs to be looked at.

The other important thing is, Muslim society is not fully understood in this country. Universities need to devote much more attention to studying Islam and Islamic societies so that Islam is understood in this country as other communities, other societies, and other religions are understood in this society.

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on November 19, 2007. Originally published on the Kennedy School Insite site at

Gowher Rizvi is a Lecturer in Public Policy, and Director, Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation