Nazita Lajevardi explores the political status of Muslim Americans
By Sandra Whitehead
“At 14 years old, I learned membership in the United States is not permanent,” Nazita Lajevardi, Ph.D., J.D., wrote in “Outsiders at Home: The Politics of American Islamophobia” (Cambridge University Press, 2020). In the aftermath of 9/11, this daughter of Iranian immigrants saw Muslimas remove their hijabs and Muslim families put American flag stickers on their cars. “My community immediately camouflaged as they waited for the heightened scrutiny on us to dissipate,” she says.
In the months and years that followed, the spotlight on Muslim Americans intensified with the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s declaration of the “Axis of Evil.” While Lajevardi and her friends worried about prom and college applications, they overheard their parents whisper about buying property abroad and moving to escape “the rising tide of harassment and discrimination. We heard … and we understood that despite having felt ‘at home,’ we were never really welcome.”
Since then, the stigmatism of Muslims has grown in the U.S. with the implementation of numerous surveillance programs targeting Muslim communities, the rise of ISIS, the prolonged detention of Middle Eastern citizens in the U.S. (American’s Human Rights Challenge, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/), the pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric of candidates in the 2016 and 2018 campaign seasons and President Donald Trump’s travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, she writes.
In a recent interview, the Michigan State University assistant professor explains how her research validates the anxieties she felt growing up Muslim American. “The totality of the evidence suggests that the exclusion I was sensing is, in fact, real and that it is far more pervasive than I had thought.”
Growing up Muslim American
Lajevardi was raised in a “somewhat religious” household in Orange County, Calif. “I went to Sunday school where nobody wore a hijab. It was more about spirituality, Sufism and mysticism,” she said. Most of her high school friends were Christian, Hindu or Catholic.
As the children of immigrants, Lajevardi and her friends navigated issues like “my friends are drinking and wearing short skirts, and my mom says I can’t do that and I can’t have a boyfriend,” she says. “They had to ask themselves, ‘Do I feel that faith, or is that my parents’ faith? How do I adapt?’
“Now a researcher, I understand. We, the non-Black children of immigrants, were a subset (about 25%) of the small Muslim population in America.” And there are only eight states in which Muslims compose more than 100,000 residents.
When Lajevardi went to Boston College, “for the first time in my life, all my friends were Muslims. During Ramadan, the university had iftars for us every night. I went to jumaa prayer with my friends. When I had to figure out what it means to go to frat parties and practice Islam, I could navigate it with my Muslim friends. I felt so uniquely supported in a way I never had before,” she says.
After one year of college, Lajevardi’s parents couldn’t afford to send her back. She transferred to a local community college. But a decision she made in Boston — to fast every Friday and go to jumaa prayer – “grounded me in my faith,” she says.
Then “God opened a door I didn’t see coming,” Lajevardi says about her acceptance to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a full scholarship. “God had equipped me that first year of school with all the tools of my faith, and then He had this path for me.”
At UCLA, she found another community of Muslim friends and continued to grow as a Muslim. “I have a very deep faith,” says Lajevardi, who doesn’t wear a hijab but has made umra four times.
“God has done everything for me. Everything. None of this is me.” Holding up her book “Outsiders at Home,” Lajevardi says, “I feel with this book I’m so blessed that God wanted to do something in this world and I had a chance to do it.”
From Law School to Research
After graduating magna cum laude in political science and French, Lajevardi went to law school at the University of San Francisco. While there, she researched Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the use of court orders requiring third parties like telephone companies to provide any records deemed relevant to international terrorism. Use of the Patriot Act has often been criticized for abuse and overreach.
“I was given space to see how different courts had been interpreting it and applying it. For the first time, I saw the devastating toll just one small section of the Patriot Act had taken on Muslim lives here in the United States. For me that was profound. It was perhaps the first time in my life this crazy reality I felt internally in myself, in my family and in my community was actually validated in the outside world.”
Meanwhile, Lajevardi accepted a position as an assistant district attorney in Sacramento County and was studying for the bar. “But something kept nagging at me,” she recalls. “Practically no one was studying Muslims. Nobody thought these issues were worth exploring.” She passed the bar, but declined the job and opted to pursue doctoral studies at the University of California, San Diego instead.
Investigating U.S. Islamophobia
Lajevardi began her academic career in 2017 in Sweden at Uppsala University. As a researcher on the CONPOL project, she explored how individuals’ involvement in politics is shaped by their social contexts. In 2018, she joined Michigan State University’s (MSU) political science department, where she also serves as an affiliated faculty in MSU’s Muslim Studies Program and at its College of Law.
A prolific researcher, since 2017 Lajevardi has produced numerous academic journal articles and book chapters and won many grants. She co-authored “Race and Representative Bureaucracy in American Policing” (Palgrave, 2017) and co-edited “Understanding Muslim Political Life in America: Contested Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century” (Temple University Press, 2018).
Cambridge University Press recently published two of her books: (1) “Outsiders at Home,” a comprehensive examination of discrimination against Muslim Americans today that provides overwhelming evidence of strong negative bias against Muslim Americans by the American public, media and political elites (this bias has “stark implications for the quality of Muslim American participation and representation in American democracy,” she comments.), and (2) “(Mis)Informed: What Americans Know About Social Groups and Why it Matters for Politics” (2021), co-authored with Marisa Abrajano.
Lajevardi worked for six years on another research, “The Media Matters: Muslim American Portrayals and the Effects on Mass Attitudes,” published in The Journal of Politics (July 2021). Her article was the first to empirically assess cable news coverage of Muslim Americans (increasingly negative) and to consider how this coverage affects American public opinion (it creates hostility toward Muslim Americans).
Lajevardi has just completed a sabbatical at Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute, which supports “world-leading scholarship” on the U.S., where she was exploring a variety of research projects regarding Muslim identity and anti-Muslim sentiments.
In a Q & A, Lajevardi discusses her findings on the current state of Islamophobia in the U.S.
How bad is Islamophobia in America?
It is far more pervasive than I had sensed. Muslims reside in select states, so the experiences we have as a collective doesn’t approach, even closely, where the country is and has been. In many ways, we have been shielded from it.
If it felt terrible, we don’t even know the half of it. It is rampant and incredibly powerful, affecting the lives of millions of people.
What is the status of Muslim Americans in American democracy?
Negative attitudes toward Muslim Americans are pervasive, and these attitudes matter for vote choice and policy preferences.
Did you find anything that surprised you?
Many of us have felt that every time you turned on the news, it was about Muslims. By putting numbers to it, we see that, in fact, the media is portraying Muslims at high rates. And when it does, that coverage is negative and is impacting American attitudes toward Muslims.
Did you find anything that gives you hope?
We are no longer talking about issue-based politics. Gone are the days when our parents could come out and say no to gay marriage or yes on a two-state solution. We are no longer thinking about politics on these issues. We can’t afford to as a community. All we can do is ally ourselves on one side or another. It gives me hope that Muslim Americans have found ways to create coalitions with other racialized groups and the progressive political agenda.
I want to encourage Muslim Americans to work with scholars studying Muslim Americans, especially those of us from the community who are spending our lives trying to help in the ways we can. Support scholarships that support Muslims and share it with family members and friends. It empowers us as Muslims; it gives us visibility.
Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. [Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal.]
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