Princeton, Religion, and Politics — Muslim Conservatism at Princeton

By Toni Alimi ’13

Conservatism at Princeton not only lives and breathes; it also thrives. Organizations like the College Republicans, the Anscombe Society, and Princeton Pro-Life provide active forums wherein conservative-minded students can voice their opinions and attempt to affect change on social and political levels. Indeed, a common theme at the annual “Most Conservative Ivy?” event typically conveys a message in the form of the following: ‘At Princeton you are blessed to have a vibrant conservative community, as it presents an opportunity for real dialogue which benefits conservatives and liberals alike.’

Such a message is certainly valid, and yet we do see certain trends present in the active conservative contingency of students at Princeton. These trends are thought provoking and sometimes a bit perplexing. To wit, in December of last year, I wrote an article for the Tory entitled “Princeton, Religion, and Politics” which dealt with the political activism of Protestants and Catholics on campus. In this article I’d like to revisit the topic of faith and politics at Princeton, this time looking at the conservative activism of Muslim students at Princeton. Specifically, I wish to examine the relative dearth of Muslim students who are actively involved in organizations like the ones aforementioned and explore reasons as to why such is the case.

As is the case in many traditional religions, Islamic teaching on certain social issues that are at the forefront of national politics today might be reasonably considered conservative. However, in understanding more fully the reasoning behind certain groups’ political leanings, we must not fall into the all-too-familiar trap of overgeneralization. In my correspondence with Imam Sohaib Sultan, the chaplain of the Muslim Students Association at Princeton, this was quickly brought to my attention: “Islam, like other religious traditions, is not monolithic in its interpretations. Diversity of thought and opinion is encouraged,” he explained. Given the diversity of its members, the Muslim Students Association “is mixed between conservatives and progressives and everything in between.” Imam Sultan granted, however, “that many Muslims would share ‘conservative’ values on social and moral issues relating to sexuality, family, and defense of human life” and that “the general Muslim American community is politically liberal and socially conservative.”

Given the teachings of Islam on issues such as those which relate to defending life and upholding the family, one might expect to find a number of Muslims involved in certain groups on campus which are conservatively bent, and yet as was mentioned before, such is not the case.

One might expect simply that Muslims might not be involved in such groups exactly because of certain political disagreements. Just as there are many Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics who are pro-life and for traditional marriage and might still self-identify as liberal because of other deep political differences with conservatives in American politics, so might many Muslims with similar views on certain issues, informed and advised similarly by a commitment to faith, be unwilling to self-identify as conservative. Certainly on the level of interpretation of religious texts, no major faith tradition is monolithic. However, divergence exists in terms of political affiliation even among individuals of similar interpretative backgrounds, simply as a result of differing opinions on which political goals are most crucial, and on how best to achieve even goals to which both parties agree.

In fact, according to Imam Sultan, this is often the case. Often, he told me, Muslims see their concerns as lying “more with social justice, civil rights, and the problem of indiscriminate violence in the name of war. Those moral issues are, whether fairly or unfairly, more often associated with a liberal or progressive agenda than a conservative one.”

I also corresponded with Princeton senior Mushim Usman by email, who adds, “I consider myself socially conservative and a practicing Muslim, but I actually don’t hold the same views as many pro-life groups do with regard to abortion or stem-cell research. So in that sense, I’m not participating in these groups because I actually disagree with their stances on these issues.”

Such notions seem to closely mirror national trends. Certainly data support Imam Sultan’s analysis of the political leanings of American Muslims. On many issues, particularly as they relate to social mores, American Muslims might be characterized as conservative, especially in relation to the rest of the nation. According to a Fall 2008 article published in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association, American Muslims opposed abortion at a rate of 56% (compared to 46% of the general population), and 59% of American Muslims felt that the government should do more to defend and instill moral values in society (compared to 37% of the general population).  In addition, 69% of American Muslims opposed gay marriage, compared with 76% of the general public.

However, according to a poll by the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections, in the most recent presidential election, about 89% of Muslims voted for Barack Obama (compared to 2% for John McCain), while according to the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, two-thirds of Muslims self-identified as Democrats and only 4% self-identified as Republicans. But according to a Council on American-Islamic Relations poll of voters in the 2000 election, about 72% of Muslims voted for George Bush. As one can imagine, the leftward shift by American Muslims seems to have begun in the wake of September 11th.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the following anecdote, recounted by Usman: “the LGBT [community] reached out to Muslims and was very supportive.” Today, he says, “You see that most Muslim groups are doing things with LGBT and other left-leaning groups because these guys reach out to us and show their support when we are being vilified in the media.” The current crop of students at Princeton is of the 9/11 generation, and many Muslim students at Princeton have felt in full force anti-Muslim sentiments for the last ten years.

Indeed, this vilification is not simply present in the conservative community, but it is, in a sense, more salient in it. Usman states that, “certain elements (and I would say the most vocal) in this [conservative] movement are the ones that vilify American Muslims and are just completely ignorant of the religion and its beliefs.” Imam Sultan agrees: “Too often public intellectuals and leaders from the conservative movement have made intolerant and deeply offensive statements about the Islamic faith and the Muslim community. This, of course, is alienating and creates a barrier to coalition building.”

As such, we see that it is not surprising that Muslims at Princeton are in general not active in groups like the College Republicans; because in general, Muslims at Princeton (and across America) are simply not politically conservative. However, this does not explain fully the dearth of Muslims in campus conservative organizations that are socially active but reasonably apolitical.

Granted, groups that are specifically pro-life and pro-family do not portray themselves as, and are not, bound uniquely to any political ideology or religious tradition. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem important whether or not these groups do align themselves religiously or politically; all which matters is that they are perceived publically as such. Usman laments what he perceives as a lack of cooperation between Christians and Muslims on certain fronts: “it is a pity that we don’t see a lot of cooperation between these two faiths in my opinion.” It is the case that these barriers may be breaking down over time: in October, Princeton Pro-Life featured a Muslim speaker, Suzy Ismail, as part of its interfaith service on Respect Life Sunday, and leaders in conservative groups have expressed hope in greater incorporation of Muslim students on campus.  Princeton senior and Pro-Life Vice President Addie Darling echoes Usman’s statements: “I would love it if we could get more of our Muslim brothers and sisters involved.”

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