Muslim Immigrants At Home Key To U.S. Image Abroad

Muslim Immigrants At Home Key To U.S. Image Abroad

(RNS) After four years of living in the U.S., Mohamed Jedeh is anxious to return to his native Libya.

It irks him that his local mosque in Union City, N.J., won't broadcast the Muslim call to prayer for fear of angering neighbors, yet nobody complains about the noise from a local bar. Back home, there are no scantily clad women walking across his sight line, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is easier because almost everyone is doing it.

Jedeh would probably be home by now if he hadn't been asked by a mosque in Boston to help with special nightly Ramadan prayers. After graduating in May with a master's degree in clinical research from the New York University College of Dentistry, he's ready to get back to the small city of Zintan in northwest Libya, where he plans to teach dentistry and work at a local clinic.

"It's different," said Jedeh, who flies back on Aug. 20. "I miss the Islamic atmosphere."

Despite his homesickness, Jedeh said he has had a positive experience in the U.S. He initially worried about his wife's safety because she wears a niqab, or face veil, but except for one insult shouted by a passerby, he and his family have been treated respectfully.

"I believe you cannot judge any country and say, all people are good or all people are bad," said Jedeh.

The opinions of Muslim immigrants and students like Jedeh are important because they shape how Muslims abroad see America, much more so than the mosques, media, and politicians in their countries, experts say. Some Middle East researchers say American policy makers and think tanks should pay more attention to people like Jedeh here at home as they work to shape perceptions of America abroad

"We have been too quick to tell stories about Muslims who have the one-dimensional view of America," said Edward Curtis, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "The deeper these contacts are, the more accurate their knowledge of America will be."

Research shows there's work to do. Recent polls from Pew and Gallup show that more than half of people in Muslim-majority countries have an unfavorable view of the U.S., and roughly 80 percent have a negative view in critical U.S. allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey.

A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that 63 percent of America's estimated 2.6 million Muslims are foreign born, with about a quarter having arrived since 2000. Between 80,000 and 90,000 Muslim immigrants have arrived annually to America over the last few years, according to the report.

So why do immigrants like Jedeh matter? Because they have friends back home, and those friends may be more influenced by him than their local leaders or slanted media reports.

As a boy in Mashhad, Iran's second largest city, Hossein Fariborzi used to believe what he heard about America in the media and during Friday sermons. America was violent, depraved, and anti-Muslim. He was told that America was a place where Muslim women risked attack if they wore their headscarves in public, and where Muslim men practiced Islam behind closed doors.

"The U.S. was considered the worst place on earth for Muslims," said Fariborzi, who is now pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science at MIT.

But by the time he reached high school, he had friends who had studied or traveled in America, and described a country that was nothing like what he heard in the media or during Friday sermons. His network of friends who had studied abroad only grew when he entered Tehran's Sharif University of Technology.

"I stopped believing what I heard about the U.S. a long time ago," Fariborzi said. Many Iranians, he added, know people who have been to or live in the United States, and don't take the establishment view of America seriously.

"Most of the religious figures are saying the same things still more than 30 years after the revolution. There is not a single week that they don't literally curse the U.S."

While many researchers ignore Muslim immigrants as sources that shape Muslim views of America abroad, others overemphasize the role of religion, Curtis said. In many Muslim countries, fewer than half the population attends Friday congregational prayers, and many of those that do go don't pay attention to the sermon.

"The mosque is overplayed as a site where consciousness is shaped," he said.

The media has a far greater influence, and highlights stories about Islamophobia in America, such as the sometimes hateful protests against a proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan in 2010.

"They like to do stories about America as Islamophobic because it contradicts American claims as the land of the tolerant," said Curtis.

Despite stories about Islamophobia, many Muslims preparing to come to America for the first time worry less about discrimination and more about temptation.

"My mother warned me I shouldn't go, and that if I do go, I should be careful because it's not like a Muslim country," said Abdulaziz Basri, a Saudi Arabian student at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. "People warn you about the vices, that they are everywhere and that if you are not careful, you will get pulled in and lose your religion."

Despite his eagerness to return to Libya, Jedeh noted that he will be reminded of America every day. Both his children -- a 3-year-old boy and a baby girl, were born in the United States.

"They are American," Jedeh said.

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