Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1949, Ihsan Bagby is an African American who, after studying the tenets of a number of different religions, “came to Islam” in 1969—attracted by the Muslim faith’s emphasis on meditation and its spiritual tradition. He holds an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies (1986) from the University of Michigan. From 1985-91, Bagby served as director of the Islamic Society of North America‘s (ISNA) Islamic Teaching Center. He has been an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky since 2002.
In the 1991 book _The Muslims of Americ_a, Bagby is quoted as having said, “Ultimately we [Muslims] can never be full citizens of this country [the U.S.] because there is no way we can be fully committed to the institutions and ideologies of this country.” Notwithstanding his belief that authentic Islam is incompatible with assimilation into American society, Bagby’s custom is to depict Muslim Americans as a politically moderate group that harbors no desire to alter any U.S. traditions or institutions.
In 2001 Bagby co-authored The Mosque in America: A National Portrait—a study summarizing the results of Bagby’s “Mosque Study Project,” by far the most extensive survey ever conducted of U.S. mosques and their congregations. Sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Circle of North America, and ISNA, this study depicted Muslims in America as an unthreatening, politically moderate demographic. A New York Times piece reported, for instance, that Bagby and his fellow researchers had found that “moderation in religious practice is acceptable in Islam”; that “living in the United States has permitted many Muslims to become more secular”; and that Muslims are often lax about attending worship services, fasting, praying, and obeying restrictions against alcohol consumption. Buried deep in the middle of Bagby’s report, however, was the fact that between 65% and 70% of practicing Muslims either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the statement that “America is immoral.”Similarly, in April 2004 Bagby published A Portrait of Detroit Mosques: Muslim Views on Policy, Politics and Religion—a study that interpreted the findings of a survey conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a Detroit-area Islamic organization. By ISPU’s telling, Bagby’s data proved that “the vast majority of Muslim Americans hold ‘moderate’ views on issues of policy, politics and religion.” Bagby, for his part, drove home this same theme in a 2004 interview with the Detroit Free Press, saying that “the mosque community is not a place of radicalism.”
But Islam scholar Daniel Pipes noted that such interpretations amounted to “a case of survey research being distorted by its sponsors to hide the actual results”—in short, “intellectual fraud and political deception.” As Pipes pointed out, Bagby’s survey actually found that among the Muslim respondents: fully two-thirds believed that “America is immoral”; approximately 90% favored a universal, government-run healthcare system; 79% supported affirmative action for nonwhite minorities; and 81% advocated the application of Sharia Law in Muslim-majority nations.
In 2010 Bagby characterized public opposition to the proposed construction of two large mosques—one in New York City and another in Florence, Kentucky—as “totally unreasonable.” Attributing that opposition to the “ignorance” and “bigotry” of “those who are less educated about Muslims,” Bagby said: “I grew up in the ’60s and am well aware of racist attitudes, and I really feel this is a replay of a deep-seated racism against anybody who doesn’t exactly look like us, and now it’s pointed at Muslims.” Bagby also suggested that part of the public’s animus was “tied to the discomfort of segments of our country with [the fact] that at least 50 percent of the country voted for this black man [President Barack Obama].” By Bagby’s reckoning, anti-Obama racists understood that “they can’t [publicly] whip on African-Americans” because “that is no longer tolerated,” but “you can get away with bashing Muslims and you can get away with bigotry towards Muslims.”
Bagby believes that Muslim Americans must “fight” to “be accepted” in the climate of “post-9/11 Islamophobia” that allegedly pervades the U.S. today. He maintains that contemporary Muslims, like other “ostracized groups before them,” also “work hard, pursue education, seek economic advancement and believe in the values associated with America.” “Those other targeted groups—such as Jews and Irish Catholics—have overcome the kind of prejudice in America that Islamophobia represents,” says Bagby.
According to Bagby, “the similarities” between Islam and the world’s other major monotheistic faiths “are so much more than the differences.” “The basic world view of Christianity is exactly the same as Islam, the same as the Jewish faith,” he assures. “All of the values that Christians hold dear have strong echoes, parallels in the Muslim faith. Those values include values of compassion for others, love for others, respect for people. They include values of morality, leading a moral life.”
In addition to the activities and affiliations cited above, Bagby at various times has also been a board member of such entities as CAIR, the Fiqh Council of North America, Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for the Study of Religion, the ISNA Leadership Development Center, and the Muslim Alliance of North America. Moreover, he helped develop a survey questionnaire for Muslims in American Public Square.