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Exploring the Immigrant Experience

Nazli Kibria, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of sociology, is at work on a book titled Muslims in Diaspora: Bangladeshis at Home and Abroad. She interviewed more than 100 Bangladeshis who have left their home country either to work temporarily in the Middle East or to settle permanently in the United States or Britain, seeking to explore how these immigrants’ identities are shaped by Islam and Muslim identity and how they are treated by others in the wider communities where they live and work.

Kibria says she is interested in understanding how individuals construct a sense of self, in the context of the ideas and conditions that shape the lives of today’s Muslims. “What I have to teach is one very simple idea,” she says. “People who are Muslim, and who claim a Muslim identity, are not all the same. They have very different views — that’s true even among those who have orthodox views.”

Through her research, she also gained insight into the recent rise of a more stringently fundamentalist practice of Islam, which she calls “revivalist Islam,” because it frequently represents a change from the Islam with which its adherents were raised. “I want to show how people understand themselves and what it means to be a Muslim,” says Kibria, a Muslim of Bangladeshi origin. “A lot of the discussions I see in the popular media here, when they talk about radical Muslims, there’s this sense that ‘They were just born like that,’ as though it’s an innate, almost a biological, quality.”

In reality, her research shows, the adoption of revivalist Islam is a social process shaped by changes in the course of people’s lives and within their communities. Some of her respondents say their conversion to orthodox Islam is a reaction to what they perceive as Western culture’s immorality or materialism; others describe finding a sense of community — and a haven from Western stigmatization of Muslims — as members of the global Ummah, or community of believers. But she found that people’s reasons differed from place to place and from individual to individual. For example, she spoke to young people who looked to an Islam different from that of their parents as a means of establishing an identity, which distinguishes them both from their immigrant families and from the dominant society.

Kibria’s book explains that the worldwide rise of Islam — and particularly of orthodox Islam — is far from the monolithic global movement it’s often portrayed to be. And she finds a lesson of hope: “In my research you see people grappling with very complicated questions and responding differently to different circumstances,” she says. “Rather than this sense that Muslims are somehow ‘different’ from the rest of the world, you get a sense of the human condition that everyone shares.”

For more information, see www.bu.edu/sociology/fac-kibria.html.

This article originally appeared in Boston University’s Research 2007 magazine. Click here to read more.