Everyone in Michigan should read this new report on the state's Muslims

Sep 14, 2017 at 6:41 am
Everyone in Michigan should read this new report on the state's Muslims
Courtesy the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

We've recently seen the results of a new study called Muslims for American Progress. Commissioned by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the study is considered the first of its kind, offering a broad look at Muslim contributions to the state of Michigan. It examines the ways Muslims have improved Michiganders' lives over the last five years in such areas as engineering, civics, economic development, medicine, philanthropy, arts and even sports.

The study found that Muslims constitute about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and about 2.75 percent of Michigan's. Given the community's small size, another key finding is understandable: Most Americans say they don’t know a Muslim. And when media content analysis reports that more than 80 percent of U.S. media coverage of Islam and Muslims is negative, the report says this “opens the door for a narrow media image to distort public perceptions of this diverse community.

That's where this study works to correct many of those misperceptions, especially in our state. In fact, the study's findings demonstrate a wealth of contributions to the economic, cultural, and political life of Michigan, which has been a magnet not just for Muslims from the Middle East, but from South Asia, West Africa, and Muslim communities from around the world.

Professionally speaking, Michigan's Muslims punch well above their weight. More than 15 percent of Michigan's medical doctors are Muslim, as are more than 10 percent of all pharmacists, more than 7 percent of all dentists, 6.9 percent of podiatrists, and 6.1 percent of osteopaths. These Muslim medical professionals provide 1.6 million appointments to patients per year, indirectly support 39,987 jobs, and fill more than 15 million retail drug prescriptions annually.

Michigan Muslims also have a serious philanthropic streak. In 2015, donations from Michigan Muslims to charity totaled more than $177 million of money, 650 tons of food, 45,000 articles of clothing, 14,000 gallons of water, and much more. In fact, The average Michigan Muslim household spent 18 percent more in charity in 2015 than the average U.S. household.

When it comes to the STEM sector, where women are vastly underrepresented, holding only 24 percent of all STEM jobs in the United States, the study finds that Muslim women are leading the way to gender parity. They're also spurring new developments in their respective areas of expertise, which the study illustrates with profiles of a half-dozen Muslim women working in such areas as highway safety, robotics, computer science, particle physics, and environmental remediation.

Perhaps most interesting to the average Michigander are the statistics on business and economics. The report finds that American Muslims constitute a whopping $5.5 billion of the consumer spending to Michigan's economy. Compared to the nation generally, in 2015 Michigan Muslim households spent 20 percent more in total, including four times as much on education and twice as much on apparel and services. For that same year, the report finds that Muslims owned at least 35,835 businesses in Michigan, about 4.18 percent of all small businesses in the state, employing approximately 100,000 Michiganders.

The report finds a community that, far from being the threatening caricature often presented in mass media, is not only generous, industrious, creative, and skilled, but also extremely diverse. We spoke at length with Rebecca Karam, who filled the role of primary investigator and report author as part of her doctoral work, and present this abridged version of our chat in advance of her appearance Sept. 20, at the Plymouth Cultural Center. (See the end of the article for details on her talk.)

Metro Times: How would you summarize your study's findings?
Rebecca Karam: Despite constituting just 2.75 percent of the state’s population, our project demonstrates that Michigan Muslims make substantial contributions to the state’s well-being across many key fields, and that these findings contrast starkly with the typical depiction of Muslim-Americans as portrayed in mainstream media..

MT: Can you talk about the goals of the study?
Karam: We basically start with this idea that comes from Pew Research that tells us more than half of Americans report that they don’t know about Islam and don't know any Muslims personally. When you don’t know Muslims personally or you don’t know anything about Islam, you let media portrayals basically dictate that story for you. Other research shows that nine out of ten news stories about Muslims portray Muslims in the context of either terrorism or violence, so that’s where this association between Muslims and violence comes into play. There are very few stories about Muslim life that have to do with just their everyday existence and professional careers and stuff like that. So that’s where this project sort of steps up and fills in those gaps, and offers a really different portrait of who Muslim Americans are.

MT: That's important, because I tend to agree that outstate Michigan is so overwhelmingly white and native-born that citizens' experiences do not form their politics so much as what they see on television or hear on the radio. That's not a slam against them. That's just what they have access to. Did your work offer any insights on that?
Karam: I think you and I both have this sense that, anecdotally, that does seem to be the case. That’s actually been a cool part about the dissemination of this project: Now that we’ve completed the report, ISPU has been really intent on not just letting the report collect dust somewhere. They have been sending me around the country to go give talks on the findings. Later this fall, I will be heading to Alpena to give a talk, and I think that there’s a real craving for a lot of people to know more about Muslims. I think they have a sense that [Michiganders] don’t really know where to turn to figure out what’s true or not, and so it’s really cool to be able to take our findings to where people are, and to meet them in their cities or townships, instead of expecting them to come to us. So I want people to sort of step outside their comfort zone and learn more and share more and come to these types of events, where they can meet Muslims personally and hear stories of their great contributions to the state of Michigan

MT: Your study offers a strong rebuttal to Islamophobic groups who claim Muslims are a danger to the state. I mean, what if we didn't have this community? What would happen if we lost the entrepreneurs who've created around 100,000 of our jobs? Or if we lost 15 percent of our medical doctors?
Karam: That’s right. What would happen if we were to limit or impugn or chase away all these Muslims from our state? The effects would be really perilous. In the case of medicine, as Michigan’s population ages rapidly, the burden on the medical system only grows, and so we need more people to care for Michigan’s residents, and Muslims are stepping up to fill that gap.

MT: We've had some instances of public officials helping spread Islamphobic sentiments, as when L. Brooks Patterson invited James Simpson to the Oakland County Business Roundtable last year. Does your report offer any reasons why this kind of thing is unhelpful to the state?
Karam: There are a lot of Muslims in the Detroit area and I think [public officials] are duty bound to respect their constituents and learn more about their everyday lives. When you look at this report, you learn is that Muslims in Michigan are not working just to make their own lives better or make the lives of their families better, but to make the lives of whole Michigan communities better. To policymakers who seek to limit or impugn Muslim communities in this state, I say look at the tremendous good that they bring to our communities. Look how the make us stronger and better and healthier and more intelligent: the teaching faculties, they bring art to our communities, their many important contributions. In this report, I made recommendations to policymakers across the country, but I think they’re especially useful to policymakers here in Michigan, so they can learn more about the lives of the constituents that they’re meant to serve.

MT: What do the study's policy recommendations entail?
Karam: Given how much Muslims bring to the state and how those people who seek to slow the growth or to control or surveil Muslim communities are going on the wrong track. I also present this idea of a feedback loop, where you have citizens, individual citizens who maybe don’t know very much about Muslims, and they learn what they know from television, which perhaps offers a biased view of Muslim-Americans, and those mediamakers report on Islamophobes at the governmental level. So maybe they see stories about [the statement calling for the killing of all Muslims by a village president in] Kalkaska or something like that, and those images and viewpoints get fed back down to the individual level. We sort of have this feedback loop where at every level there’s a misunderstanding about Muslims, so we’re seeking to intervene at every level of that feedback loop, to offer a different, more nuanced picture of Muslim-American life.

MT: So people in political office should rebut these extreme statements and certainly not make them.
Karam: That’s why we’re just so grateful when cities invite us into their spaces to give these types of talks. Honestly, we’ve been invited to some funny places. We’ve been invited into a small church in Dexter, and I really didn’t know what would happen. I guess fliers were hung up in town, in the hardware stores and stuff, and people were coming in. It was a packed house, it ended up being the most fruitful, wonderful discussion — because people earnestly, and honestly wanted to know more about Muslims. They showed up and asked questions, and really it was a learning event for everybody in the community.

MT: Given that there are all these professionals in the mix, it seems that, when it comes to Islamic immigration, we’re getting the cream of the crop. Is that true?
Karam: We actually get a pretty wide range of immigrants. We do get a lot of people who are Muslim who come to this country ready to be trained as doctors and go right into medical school or perhaps become trained engineers or things like that. But actually, the Muslim American community is really, really diverse. It was actually a national poll that ISPU conducts annually, and what they learned is that Muslim-Americans are on both end of the strata. So you have really rich, high-socioeconomic-status Muslims, but you also have a lot of Muslims who are clustered at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, and that’s actually something that our project wanted to showcase as well: the diversity of the Muslim-American community. I think for some people they get this impression that all Muslims are really rich, really powerful, but actually they’re really diverse socioeconomically.

MT: And we're not just talking about people from the Middle East, right?
Karam: They’re not only diverse socioeconomically, but racially as well. What’s really unique about the Muslim-American community is that there is no dominant racial or ethnic group. There’s no majority. They’re like a quarter black or African-American, a quarter Arab, about 20 percent South Asian and so on and so forth. I think that’s something most people don’t suspect or realize about the Muslim-American community is how diverse it is.

MT: Even if they aren’t all doctors and lawyers and wealthy, aren't the people with limited means more likely to start businesses, pay more taxes?
Karam: I don’t have any data that shows they’re more likely to start businesses, but we do know that there are basically high levels of ethnic entrepreneurship in Muslim centers. For example in Hamtramck, Muslim entrepreneurship is incredibly high, and that's something that you can likely find across the state. In 2015, we estimate that there were at least 25,000 Muslim businesses in the state, which make up over 4 percent of all the small businesses in the state of Michigan, and that they employ 100,000 Michiganders.

MT: Is there anything about Michigan's Muslim population that makes it stand out from other states, other than its size?
Karam: No. In fact, the reason we selected Michigan, is because its [Muslim] population tracks national averages pretty well in terms of … socioeconomic status and racial diversity and different professional breakdowns. That’s why we selected Michigan, to sort of be a case study for what’s going on more nationally in terms of the Muslim-American community. Even though the folks that we profiled are here in Michigan, we think that they can represent or are representative of what’s going on across the United States. ISPU is currently conducting the study again in New York City, and then we’ll be able to compare the findings and really see how representative Muslim contributions are between the coasts and the country.

Rebecca Karam will speak from 7-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Plymouth Cultural Center, 525 Farmer St., Plymouth; for more information about the study, click here.