Chicago Muslims in Their Own Voices
The Scope of Our Project
Chicago’s Muslims in Their Own Voices: Lived Identity in the First Person is an outreach project that documents the wide range of experience and outlook among Muslims residing in the greater Chicago area. It consists of over 120 recorded interviews with members of Chicago’s extremely diverse Muslim communities, including people of South Asian, Arab, Persian, Turkish, Bosnian, Hispanic, African, and European descent. Some are converts and others life-long Muslims. The project was designed and executed by the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and South Asian Language and Area Center (SALAC), and was funded through a generous grant from the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Academia and the Public Sphere initiative.
In putting together Chicago’s Muslims in Their Own Voices: Lived Identity in the First Person we had two major goals. First, we intended to enhance our capacity as U.S. Department of Education National Resource Centers focusing on the Middle East and South Asia to talk to the public about Muslims in the Chicago area. In recent years, we have received a growing number of inquiries about Muslims in the United States and in Chicago, in addition to the usual questions about Muslims in other countries. This project is part of a response to that demand, and we believe the interviews will prove to be a powerful tool for talking both to and about local Muslim communities. Second, this project contributes to our on-going efforts to offer the public a more complex picture of Muslims by puncturing stereotypes and by encouraging an approach to thinking about Muslims that emphasizes lived experience rather than essentialist definitions.
What do we mean by “essentialist definitions?” We mean the idea, common in many public forums, that Muslims are defined by one or two basic characteristics. Most generally, Muslims are portrayed as having Middle Eastern ethnic origins and as strictly following Islam, defined in a purely formal way. They are often represented as recent immigrants, olive skinned, bearded or veiled, strongly religious, and conservative in their outlook. Islam is usually understood theologically, with an emphasis on the so-called five pillars, the Quran, and the Hadith traditions, as well as with an assumption that “being Muslim” means strictly following certain doctrinal requirements.
In fact, however, many Muslims do not have a Middle Eastern background and many others who are of Middle Eastern descent have been in the U.S. for generations. Doctrinal understandings of Islam fail to take into account different traditions and on-going debates within the Muslim world, and also do not acknowledge that many who identify themselves as Muslims may not adhere to some or any of the supposed doctrinal requirements. An essentialist view misses the many well-established Muslim communities in this country as well as the important and growing number of American converts to Islam. It is also a view that tends to highlight the visibly pious while leaving other Muslims in the shadows.
We hope this project will contribute to challenging popular stereotypes (including stereotypes held by Muslims) about who Muslims are. We also hope it will foster a way of thinking about Muslims that incorporates the idea of “Muslim-ness” as a cultural orientation or identity – one that could include non-observant Muslims or even atheists – as well as a set of religious beliefs. In this way we can begin to see and appreciate the true complexity of Muslim communities and Muslim experience in the Chicago area and in the Unites States more broadly.