Current Issue

Dec. 9, 2009

Vol. 110, No. 6


Walking and talking in the Arab street

Professor Amaney Jamal studies Arab public opinion

By Christopher Shea ’91
Published in the December 9, 2009, issue

Amaney Jamal in Corwin Hall.
Ricardo Barros
Amaney Jamal in Corwin Hall.

In accordance with Islamic tradition, Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics, wears a headscarf, or hijab, when she ventures out in public. Naturally, her public duties include teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Princeton.

Now, admit it: You want to know about that scarf. What does it mean to her? Is it a ­statement of some kind? Does she think women ought to subordinate themselves to men?

Go ahead and ask, for there are very few questions that Jamal has not fielded on this subject. “It’s always something to look forward to,” says the 38-year-old scholar, who is naturally animated, and more so than usual on this topic. “You never know where it’s going to come from. It can happen at a restaurant. It can happen before I give a talk, or at the grocery store. Someone will send me an e-mail. But it’s always an issue.” Asked if she considers herself a feminist, she says, “Of course.”

We aren’t, to be clear, talking about a burka, the head-to-toe ensemble favored in the most conservative Islamic countries. On a crisp day in early October — a particularly hectic one that includes a lecture, a precept, a lunchtime presentation by visiting scholars, and office hours — she sports a simple brown-and-taupe scarf that covers her hair and also nicely complements a tan double-breasted jacket, black wool pants, and brown shoes. Her glasses are professorial-hip.

Jamal was born in Oakland, Calif., and moved at 5 to Modesto, a small city in the state’s agriculturally rich Central Valley. But she spent most of her teenage years in a small town just outside Ramallah in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. She did not don the scarf until 1991, when she was a sophomore at Cal Poly Pomona, part of the California state university system. It was a private spiritual decision, and partly a solace: Her father had recently died. But she also had been having disquieting thoughts about how her family and her Muslim-American friends perceived people who dressed, unlike them, in a non-secular way. She began to wonder: How would I be treated if I looked more Muslim?

She tried out the scarf, as a religious and social experiment, and the reaction was instantaneous. “People asked, ‘Why are you putting yourself down? ... Are you becoming a narrow zealot?’

“The reactions were so negative that I thought, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t going to be an experiment,’” she recalls. Continuing to wear it was an assertion of independence, spiritually as well as personally. “In no other religion are people under the microscope to demonstrate their universal credentials,” she says. “And it’s all manifested in how they dress.” Jamal favors freedom of choice (something she is quite aware that Saudi women, for example, do not have) and different interpretations of feminism, including Muslim feminism.

Seventeen years later, the comments continue. When traveling in the Middle East, for every remark she gets congratulating her for how she “represents” Islam in the United States, she says, she gets a variation on the charge that she is “anchoring down women” with her choice of dress.  

In her scholarship and her biography, Jamal always has had one foot in the Middle East and one foot in America. Her­ father, who had emigrated to California with her mother from Ramallah in 1969, ran a clothing store. Jamal remembers no discrimination in an all-American Modesto childhood. “There are a lot of cows there,” the professor says. “There is the smell of ... ,” she begins, before deciding against painting a more pungent picture.

One thing there was not much of, at least in those days, was multiculturalism. “My parents woke up one day and said, ‘Hello! The kids don’t speak Arabic, they don’t know the religion, and they don’t know their own culture.’ So they packed up and moved back” to the West Bank. Her father kept the store open, spending considerable time in Modesto and visiting the West Bank every three months.

Jamal (with her twin sister, Manal, who now teaches Middle East studies at James Madison University) attended an elite Quaker school in Ramallah. (She has three younger siblings as well.) When it came time for college, she enrolled at Cal Poly, intending to go the premed route, but she became bored by lab work. She was combining college with building a family in a way that is somewhat unusual by American standards. She married just before her freshman year, to a Palestinian immigrant to the United States, a medical student, and had her first child, a daughter, her sophomore year. (That daughter is now a sophomore at Princeton.) Jamal then transferred to UCLA, before heading to Ann Arbor for graduate school. She joined Princeton’s faculty in 2003 and lives with her husband, an emergency-room physician, and three younger daughters, 16, 9, and 2, in Franklin Township, a few miles north of the University.

It should not be surprising that Jamal takes a keen interest in her own public reception: One of her academic specialties is studying the opinions of, and about, Arab-Americans in the United States. She also explores public opinion in the Middle East, a project that she and her co-investigators hope will help produce a more nuanced view of the Mideast among Westerners — and in the Middle East, just possibly, ripples of reform.

On the U.S. front, she was a member of a Michigan-based group called the Detroit Arab-American Study Team, which recently published Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9/11, based on face-to-face interviews with community leaders and more than 1,000 residents of that city. (Jamal did her graduate work at the University of Michigan.)

Few Americans realize just how Arab-inflected the Detroit area is: Some Arab-Americans call it “our New York.” The first major wave of immigration came from Lebanon and Syria, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in the late 1800s, and was largely Christian. Muslim Arabs followed; the first mosque was erected in 1921. Today some 35 percent of the residents of Dearborn, a major Detroit suburb, are Arab-American. The director of facilities and infrastructure at the Detroit Metro Airport is of Arab descent, as are numerous officials who work on homeland-security matters in Detroit and Wayne County.  

Arab Detroit feared it might become the focus of a backlash after the terrorist attacks in New York — whether that happened is, in part, the subject of Citizenship and Crisis. While the book finds some evidence of such a phenomenon, it also records plenty of examples of cross-cultural solidarity — good will that was less prevalent, it suggests, in places with fewer Arab-Americans. In the months after 9/11, for example, one in four Arab-Americans nationally reported some sort of negative experience based on his or her ethnicity. In Detroit, the figure was 15 percent. Thirty-three percent of Detroit Arab-Americans reported acts of kindness from non-Arab friends or strangers.  

The murder Nov. 5 of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in which Army major and psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan has been charged, has reawakened debate over the patriotism of Muslims and instilled fear in the Muslim-American community. In the wake of the Texas massacre, Marty Peretz, editor of The New Republic, wrote: “Certainly, the trek of Muslims to England and France, to the Netherlands and Belgium, to Norway and Spain has the essence of jihad about it. And maybe ... America will avoid that fate. But I am not sure, and no one can be sure.” At the National Review Online, Andy McCarthy wrote that the view, attributed to Hasan, that Muslims could not in good faith serve in a military fighting in Muslim nations was widely accepted among Muslim Americans, leading to a threat of sabotage.  

To the contrary, Jamal says, no one is as committed to identifying Islamic extremists and stopping them before they act as are members of the Muslim-American community. “The average American would be just shocked to know how closely knit relations between mosques and law-enforcement officials are,” she says. “And it’s for two purposes. It’s not only that Muslims are fulfilling their patriotic loyalty to law enforcement. That’s part of it. But it’s very much part of the strategic interest of the Muslim community because they don’t want to be in a situation where there is going to be another 9/11.” It is a truism in the Muslim-American community, she says, that another terrorist attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks would result in a wave of repression against Muslim Americans that could set the community’s efforts at integration back a hundred years. (At the same time, Jamal suggests that Americans take seriously the idea that anti-Muslim discrimination, which Hasan claimed to have suffered, as well as Islamic extremism, may have played a part in pushing the unstable loner over the edge.)

In general, the Detroit survey found the opposite of a seething subculture skeptical of American values. Arab-Americans in Detroit demonstrated more faith in American institutions like public schools, the legal system, and local law enforcement than did Detroit residents in general. There did appear to be a two-track system in which suburban, Christian, white-identifying Arabs were on their way to full acceptance as citizens, while Muslim Arabs were more wary of whether society will treat them fairly. (Some populations, like Yemeni Sunnis, seemed especially prone to self-isolation.)

The idea of a basic incompatibility between Arabs, or Muslims, and American traditions is “just a huge misconception,” Jamal says. “When we survey Muslims, the thing they value the most about the United States is that this is a country that allows for religious practice, and the state doesn’t infringe on the religious practice. To an extent this is a Christian country. But you can live here as a Muslim American and live just fine. You can live as a Jewish American and live just fine. This is something that Muslim Americans really appreciate.” Muslim Americans generally are on par with the American mainstream, socioeconomically speaking, making the situation quite unlike that in Europe. The conceptual challenge for non-Muslim Americans, Jamal suggests, lies in distinguishing between Arab-Americans’ dislike of U.S. foreign policy and their broader feelings for their country.

Just as Jamal is testing assumptions about Arab-Americans using survey data, she is doing the same for Arabs in the Middle East. She oversees, with Mark Tessler, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Michigan, the Arab Barometer Project, an unprecedented effort to team up with Arab academics to conduct surveys in countries whose regimes have not always evinced particular interest in what their citizens have to say. Carried out in 2006 and 2007, the first wave of surveys measured public opinion in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Yemen, and Lebanon. (Egypt’s bureaucrats strung Jamal and Tessler along for a year before rejecting the project; Yemen and Lebanon were last-minute substitutes.)  

The results serve as a partial rebuke to those who think that Arabs in the Middle East reject democracy outright. Those polled (half men, half women) were presented with the following statement, for example: “Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government.” Answering in the affirmative were 63 percent of Yemenis, 69 percent of Algerians, 74 percent of Jordanians, 79 percent of Palestinians, 82 percent of Kuwaitis, 85 percent of Moroccans, and 89 percent of Lebanese.  

In all of the countries except religiously diverse Lebanon, majorities thought that legislatures must pass laws that accord with Sharia, or Islamic law. Yet majorities in those countries also said that they did not believe that non-Muslims should have fewer rights than Muslims. Jamal conducted interviews in the region to supplement the surveys, and she says citizens made it clear that they had a more elastic concept of Sharia than Westerners (or conservative Islamic clerics) might expect. “The answer I would get,” she says, “is, ‘It’s all about justice, or about democracy, or equality.’”

Only Algerians, Kuwaitis, and Yemenis rejected the idea that a woman could serve as prime minister or president in an Islamic country. And there was significant respect everywhere for the cultures of the United States and other Western countries.

Needless to say, all was not rosy: Small majorities in every country but Lebanon agreed with the idea that “U.S. involvement in the region justifies armed operations against the United States anywhere.” (Censors in Morocco forbade asking that question; in Yemen, there was an error in the data and the question had to be thrown out.)

Post Comments
Tell us what you think about
Walking and talking in the Arab street
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: Dec. 9, 2009