Abu Dhabi: A professor at New York University of Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is hoping that his four-year research project on young American Muslims in the post-9/11 era, which he is in the process of getting published, can offer valuable insights about the community.
Professor John O’Brian, who teaches as part of NYUAD’s social research and public policy department, says that in the current climate of rising Islamophobia and with individuals like US presidential hopeful Donald Trump fanning the flames, there needs to be an educated understanding of mainstream Islam and Muslim society.
“I was interested in how it was to grow up as a young Muslim in the US after September 11. There was a sense that it was not easy and I was interested in how young Muslims managed,” said O’ Brian, explaining why he began his research.
“I spent about four years with a small group of American Muslim friends, the youngest of whom was 13 years old and the oldest 17. They were five or six close friends from different ethinicities with all of them being born in the US or coming to the country when very young,” he added.
Once he began to spend time with the group of young American Muslims, he was able to observe several interesting facts that ran contrary to the perceived notions of what young Muslims in the West were like or what they were thinking.
“What I found was that these young Muslims were finding ways to feel American; sometimes, people assume that Muslim Americans feel isolated but they didn’t always feel like that,” he said.
“They had a lot of American non-Muslim friends and so, from their point of view, they saw no conflict between being a Muslim and an American. They didn’t feel angry or alienated… America has a very diverse history and they saw themselves as part of that tradition,” he added.
Gaining such insights, according to O’ Brian, is important as these allows people to see beyond the headlines, and get a personalised view of who Muslims actually are.
“People assume there is this problem [of alienation]; my book shows that there doesn’t need to be a problem.
“To simply say that Muslims cannot be integrated is a very general statement. Muslims make up one-fifth of the world’s population,” he added.
A modern Muslim country like the UAE can also play a vital role in spreading awareness on how mainstream Muslims live, and integrate, according to O’Brian.
“The UAE can definitely be a good example, and an example that people in the US [and the West] don’t see much. There is so little education on Muslims which leads to people making some very basic arguments [against Muslims] and so they are often surprised when they learn about a country like the UAE,” he said.
Prof O’Brian also belives that educational institutions can play a big role in correcting misconceptions.
“Having an institution like this [NYUAD] is important; it allows students from abroad to get to know each other, and when they go back to the US, they talk about what it’s like over here. These are small things but they make a big difference, because once someone gets the time to learn about somebody that’s different, it becomes harder to stereotype them,” he added.
O’Brian laments the controversial statements made by US presidential hopeful Donald Trump on Muslims and Islam, and says that Trump merely plays off people’s fears and suffers from a lack of knowledge about Muslims.
“A lot of these issues come up during elections. It’s amazing how often issues of Muslims in the US and Islamophobia come up when people are running for office. It’s often directed at people who don’t know Muslims, so it’s much easier to use that kind of rhetoric,” he said.
Citing his own research, O’Brian added that the young American Muslims he spent time with all felt accepted as Muslims.
“If people feel accepted, that they belong to and are part of society, it becomes harder for them to be driven away and to feel like that they belong somewhere else. With many young people who joined Daesh, they have this sense of an idealised caliphate where everything is perfect,” he said.
“But if someone is happy with where they are, and they are accepted and there are people who care and love them, that person won’t feel the need to go look for something different or be pulled into extremism… ” he added.