By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs
The politicization of Islam has misconstrued the religion’s impact on individuals as they grow up in an increasingly divided world. The horrors of extremist groups represent rare cases of how religion is being used to pursue a violent agenda. Yet the atrocities they falsely commit in the name of the religion have been amplified in the media, eclipsing the role Islam plays in the lives of nearly a quarter of the human population – the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world. Now, research coming out of NYU Abu Dhabi is looking to illuminate Islam in the lives of ordinary people around the world.
Economist Samreen Malik studies issues impeding development in low and middle income economies. In her latest study, she wants to understand how non-economic factors, especially religion, can impact human capital development in Pakistan.
While religious denominations or religious activities are often associated with behaviors such as tolerance or women’s career choices, within religions a different extent of each individual’s belief system,or what Malik terms as intrinsic religiosity, is thus far ignored.
"We found that outward religiosity, where you go for prayer or you're reciting the Quran, that has literally no impact on test scores. Schooling is completely unaffected by it. But it is the deeper motivation of religion, which is what we call the intrinsic religiosity, which actually has a positive effect."
To that extent, her research shows that students in families with higher intrinsic religiosity in Pakistan, where Islam is the predominant religion, have produced students who have done better in school and are more likely to spend their time studying. Specifically, Malik wanted to compare test scores from those students with parents who have a high degree of intrinsic religiosity, to those who practiced Islam for social or other reasons.
“We found that outward religiosity, where you go for prayer or you're reciting the Quran, that has literally no impact on test scores. Schooling is completely unaffected by it. But it is the deeper motivation of religion, which is what we call the intrinsic religiosity, which actually has a positive effect – it is associated with increased child's attendance in school, better performance in test scores, and less chance of engaging in various forms of work early in their life. In sum, intrinsic religiosity is a positive force in human capital development,” she said.
The findings of this paper go one step further to show that religion relative to many traditional factors, such as household’s income, parents’ and children’s cognitive abilities, and parents’ own education background, by far plays the most important role in children’s human capital outcomes. Malik said that more needs to be done to explore a relatively unknown field, which is currently dominated by associating religious denominations with various outcomes. In Pakistan, and other predominantly Muslim countries, the concept of deep spirituality is a common guiding force for day-to-day activities, decisions, and interactions, and such factors could shed light on society as a whole.
“I started off by thinking that it's going to have some negative effect on the child's allocation of hours. But turns out research showed a different path that instead religiosity can be a positive strong guiding force in deciding student's human capital decisions,” she said.
She found that students from households with a high degree of inward religiosity or youth who came from families with that belief system performed better in school and were likely to attend more classes.
But what was equally surprising is that Muslim youth in countries whereby Islam was not the majority religion were also managing to maintain healthy childhoods without feeling confused about their identity.
The US has had a contentious relationship with Islam despite it having long been a part of the country’s social fabric. Early accounts of Islam in the country existed even before independence, as slaves brought over to the continent from places like Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, practiced in secret. Today, the religion has struggled to defend itself from criticism. Famous American Muslims, from athletes Mohammed Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar to rapper Mos Def, have helped pave the way for young Muslim Americans to be seen as separate from media bias. But how do the Muslim youth of today struggle with their identity?
“They don't,” said John O’Brien, a sociologist and ethnographic researcher. “They don’t feel a conflict. There are certain parts of American culture that actually have Islam within it. So, for example, hip hop music has actually a lot of rappers who are Muslim. And so they can actually look at that and kind of recognize themselves in some of what's very popular American culture.”
O’Brien, who wrote a book about a group of young American Muslims living in a major city in the US, said it’s a combination of elements that make the group feel less alienated despite the last two decade’s media depiction of Islam. However, he says that somehow the international aspects of major cities in the US and the laws, specifically freedom of religion, leads them to feel more accepted.
"It’s actually given these young men purpose, and a sense of community. I think it also does guide how they think about things, about how they see the world."
Furthermore, O’Brien says that young Muslim Americans feel a sense of community belonging to the religion, but not so much so that they feel isolated from the wider spectrum of what it means to be young in America.
“It’s actually given these young men purpose, and a sense of community. I think it also does guide how they think about things, about how they see the world. Also, it’s keeping them out of harm’s way because the group feels connected and they check on each other to make sure they aren’t getting in trouble,” he said.
However, he said the Muslim Americans in this community are given leniency in the way they were taught Islam, which seemed to help them balance their religion with being young Americans.
“The parents and the leaders of the Mosque were open enough to say ‘OK, we want to make sure that you guys are staying in your religion but not being so strict on every tiny thing that we would turn you off to it.’ So the question becomes, what is at the heart of it being a good person? Of course, they're still doing prayers and things like this, but not overly stressing the small rules they believe distract from the main purpose of the religion,” he said.