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SIPA Conference Discusses New York City's Growing Muslim Population

By Abigail Beshkin

At the podium, Lorraine Minnite, political science professor at Barnard College and a co-principal investigator of the project.

Before 1970 there were fewer than ten mosques in New York City—now there are well over a hundred, indicating the rapid growth of New York City's Muslim population.

This was one of the findings released April 30 by researchers from the Muslim Communities in New York City Project, which held a day-long conference at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to present their results. The Muslim Communities in New York City Project is the most extensive research ever undertaken on New York's Muslim communities. Funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, researchers spent three years canvassing all five boroughs, mapping the areas where Islamic communities are centered and conducting focus-group research with the community members.

The group presented the results of the mapping research. One of the larger concentrations of Muslims is in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn, with other major centers in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The group found 28 mosques in Queens, 27 in Brooklyn, 20 in the Bronx, 17 in Manhattan and eight in Staten Island; however, all participants said they thought they had underestimated the number of mosques, because worshippers often set up small mosques in their apartments that are not visible from the street.

The mapping was undertaken between 1998 and 1999, when a research team of graduate students canvassed nearly every neighborhood in the city's five boroughs to record the location of mosques, Muslim-owned stores, professional offices, and service and cultural centers. They then built a database and generated maps to assess Muslims' visibility in the city. These detailed maps were shown for the first time on April 30.

Because there is no census data on religion (the government is prohibited from collecting information on people's religious affiliations), there is no official count on how many Muslims are in New York City, but the researchers estimate that there are about 600,000 Muslims throughout the five boroughs.

Last summer, researchers used the maps to forge networks to recruit community members for interviews. The findings presented were the result of collecting more than 60 hours of tape from 208 participants in 27 focus groups.

"The central question was how and to what extent do Muslim New Yorkers participate in American society by forging distinctive religious identity and building communities," said Louis Cristillo, a doctoral candidate and one of the lead researchers. He said that three main questions informed the focus group research: what does it mean to be religious in a pluralist society; for which issues do Muslims mobilize, and how do they respond to stereotypes?

What the researchers stressed was the diversity of values and opinions within the different Muslim communities.

"Muslims are an incredibly diverse population in New York City," said Lorraine Minnite, political science professor at Barnard College and a co-principal investigator of the project. "The research has shown that the diversity of communities in New York is a strength, rather than a weakness."

Cristillo said that the Muslims interviewed tended to connect their religious identity to the concept of umma—a global nation of the faithful -- but that African American Muslims tended to retain a distinct identity of connecting to a larger African American experience.

Minnite presented the findings of the group on political participation, which she said was different for African-American Muslims than for immigrant Muslims.

"In general, the language of politics for immigrant Muslims is imagined," Minnite said. "For newer immigrants, American politics has yet to be fully engaged."

"But when African-American Muslims talk about political involvement, they used a language of experience that stems from a historical involvement of the African American community in politics," Minnite said.

Researcher Selma Zecevic presented her findings about women, who were 33 percent of the participants. She noted that women talked largely about diffusing negative stereotypes of Islam in the media.

"The most common stereotypes they found were characteristics of violence amongst men and the submissiveness of women," she said. She also said that most of the communities felt they themselves had failed to reach out to the media, and hoped to do so in the future.

Among the panelists and moderators were Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Ester Fuchs, director of the Center of Urban Research and Policy; Gary Sick, acting director of the Middle East Institute; Lorraine Minnite, political science professor at Barnard College; Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies; Richard Bulliet, professor in Columbia's history department; Linda Beck, political science professor at Barnard College, and Reeva Simon, assistant director of the Middle East Institute.

Community members also helped lead the dialogue with panels on education, health and social services and business in Muslim communities. Speakers included Muslim community leaders and activists, including Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya, community activist and president of the New York-based human rights organization Women in Islam; Al-Hajj Ghazi Y. Khankan, executive director of the New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, scholar and activist, and Sunni Rumsey Amatullah of the Iris House Project.

Published: May 03, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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