The horrific events of 9/11 thrust American Muslims into the spotlight; the government, media, and public wanted information on Muslims, yet there wasn’t a go-to place for broad and reliable research. Where true data was lacking, half-truths and suspicion became increasingly common. To combat this disturbing trend toward misinformation, five friends from Michigan and a young scholar from California joined together and planned the research organization that is today ISPU. Recalls co-founder Muzammil Ahmed, “The thing that really had us worried was people trying to describe what the American Muslim community was like, in particular we had members of Congress who were saying that there’s a large number of extremists in mosques.” For co-founder Iltefat Hamzavi, “the goal was [to] provide a mirror—a real mirror for the community to look at itself and have others to look at it so that we can make a fair assessment.”
Over the past 15 years, ISPU has continued to strive toward this goal, evolving from a small think-tank to a nationally renowned research organization. In that time, we have published more than 150 reports and policy briefs, held trainings and convenings, provided necessary platforms for debate, and empowered American Muslims, policymakers, the media, and civic and religious leaders through data. Today, ISPU’s impactful research continues to fill an important need in the ever-changing American landscape.
In June 2014, we published our Promoting Healthy Marriages & Preventing Divorce report. At the time, American divorce rates in the U.S. were decreasing since reaching a peak in the 1980s. However, in the Muslim community, rates were on the rise. Community leaders across the country expressed concern about marital discord and divorce rates in the American Muslim community, yet there was limited research on this issue and little in the way of resources for practitioners, religious leaders, and members of the community offering support to families facing challenging times. To help address the need and improve marriage outcomes in the American Muslim community, we embarked on an ambitious exploratory study.
The study provided an understanding of the ways in which American Muslims perceive and utilize marriage education and marital interventions. Researchers conducted individual interviews with imams, counselors, divorcees and married individuals to determine the use of and feasibility of marital interventions in the American Muslim community. Amal Killawi, the author of the report, says this much-needed research filled a gap: “The Marriage and Divorce Study shed light on the challenges experienced by Muslims in marriage, and it sparked a nationwide conversation about the need in our communities for both marriage preparation and support for struggling marriages.”
What are the attitudes, practices, and experiences of American Muslims? We sought to uncover the answers to these questions in our first nationwide survey: the American Muslim Poll. In March 2016, our poll results revealed the opinions of various faith groups on topics such as religion, politics, violence, identity, and so much more. Our goal: to insert Muslim voices into discussions about Islam that tended to neglect their perspectives, offering a badly needed, evidence-based contribution to an often misinformed discussion. What emerged was the profile of a Muslim community that was both pious and patriotic, optimistic and weary of discrimination, similar to Jews in its politics, and much like Protestants in its religious practice.
Throughout 2016, the poll’s research findings were cited in at least 60 different news publications, including a CBS News special. It underpinned efforts to combat bullying in schools, trained educators and law enforcement, and informed governmental agencies and White House officials. It also enabled educators like Prof. Todd Green, who said: “I refer to ISPU’s American Muslim poll when I give public talks on Islamophobia. It helps to nuance the picture of American Muslims and to challenge unfair stereotypes concerning Islam’s compatibility with the U.S.”
In April 2004, we published our first report, the Detroit Mosque Study. This study gave a statistical overview of Detroit mosques and their attendees, and sought to “sift rumor from reality in regards to American mosques.” According to report author Dr. Ihsan Bagby, this report’s significance was in the way it began a conversation about American mosques and their leadership. He felt that an evidence-based discussion was key to a greater understanding of the Muslim community generally and a necessary step in improving their standing in the society at large.
For ISPU, this study held deep significance. Less than three years after the organization’s founding, the Detroit Mosque Study was ISPU’s first published contribution to a much-needed discussion about American Muslims. Even now, after 15 years and more than 150 reports and policy briefs, ISPU always remembers fondly its first success at educating the public and countering fear with facts.