Dissertation Project

Making Muslim Americans: Parenting Practices, Parochial Schools, and the Transmission of Faith Across Generations in Metropolitan Detroit

Scholarship on assimilation outcomes among American immigrants and their children conceive of success in primarily socioeconomic terms, focusing on a convergence into the middle-class, white mean often measured by a college education, employment in a high-status occupation, and homeownership (Portes and Zhou 1993; Waters et al. 2010). Yet recent research identifies patterns of distinctively minority cultures of mobility in which members of the second generation turn to co-ethnics as the reference group, rather than native-born whites, sometimes assimilating beyond the white, middle-class norm (Jimenez and Horowitz 2013; Lacy 2007; Lee and Zhou 2015). Using these subject-centered approaches, success is defined through ethnically and racially-specific cultural frames. What remains under-researched, however, is the role that religionplays in how second-generation Americans conceptualize, frame, and support distinctive forms of success for their children. My dissertation intervenes by asking how a racial, ethnic, and religious minority group in America—suburban second-generation Muslim parents in Metro-Detroit who send their children to Muslim K-8 parochial schools—subjectively frame and support success for their children. The project draws on two years of ethnographic observation as well as 72 in-depth interviews with second-generation Muslim parents, school administrators, and after-school activity leaders during the 2016-2018 academic school years.

My project makes a significant empirical contribution by exploring the lived experiences of second-generation Muslims and a theoretical contribution to immigration literature by extending the research on the racialization of Islam within the context of assimilation, a topic that warrants greater theoretical development (Gans 2017; Garner and Selod 2014). It does so by showing how participants emphasize a religious identity over an ethnic or racial identity both within and outside of the Muslim community. This allows participants to transcend racial and ethnic attachments, giving primacy to their religious identity. The findings also raise immigration policy relevant concerns about how the growing number of Muslim institutions (e.g., parochial schools) in America may actually serve as an important springboard into assimilation, in contrast to public discourse which often labels these Muslim spaces a hindrance to the assimilation process. These negative attitudes both contribute to—and exacerbate—Islamophobia that manifests itself in media depictions (Alsultany 2012; Shaheen 1985), public policy (Bakalian and Bozorgmehr 2009; Cainkar 2009), and interpersonal acts of violence inflicted on Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim (Pew 2017). Combating these negative outcomes means combating anti-Muslim xenophobia, a goal which can be supported by research that assesses the veracity of perceptions that the religion, its institutions, and its adherents are foreign and unassimilable.

In sum, I argue that this group of American-born Muslims is consciously crafting an ethnically universalistic American Islam in contrast to the ethnically particularistic Islam found among the immigrant generation. Participants spoke of a decultured Islam as the path to move closer to God, while acknowledging that it brought them and their children nearer to the American mainstream by adhering more closely to dominant cultural norms. This research shows how parents navigate and redraw the boundaries of competing cultural worlds with their children in fostering success: both American and Muslim. In so doing, my dissertation responds to scant attention paid to the tension between race, class, and religion among American-born Muslims. As my research demonstrates, it is imperative to explore religion within the context of assimilation as it illuminates the way the process may be measured using cultural, intrapersonal, and interpersonal aspects, all of which affect the subjective experiences of racialization in America.