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Assimilation, religion and American identity

As Islamic studies grows in popularity, a Duke professor's recently published book approaches the subject from a new angle.

In New Faiths, Old Fears: Muslims and Other Asian Immigrants in American Religious Life, Professor of Religion Bruce Lawrence explores the difficulties Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants face while assimilating into American culture.

The book actually began as a lecture. In 1999, Lawrence received the American Lectures on the History of Religion Lectureship from the American Council of Learned Societies. The recipient has one year to write a lecture on the topic of his choice, as long as the subject is original. For Lawrence, who enjoys exploring new issues, that requirement posed no problem.

"One of the reasons I have remained an academic is that I really like to do things that are innovative, yet basic," Lawrence said. "I like to touch on the basics of who people are, where they came from and how they feel."

Lawrence has published eight other books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Religion Online. Although many of his topics in the past focused on the history of the Muslim world, for this lecture, he chose an issue a bit closer to home, namely how immigrants adapt to a new culture while maintaining their old values.

In the book, Lawrence analyzes Asian immigrants in the United States from 1965 to the present. Asian, in this sense, defines immigrants from India, Pakistan, Iran and parts of the Arab world.

"There have been many books published about religions such as Islam and Buddhism," he said. "This book deals with what happens to these groups when they become a part of American culture."

Thomas Tweed, a Zachary Smith distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History, recommended Lawrence's book for all interpreters of American religion.

"Most observers of religion in the contemporary United States agree that the arrival of immigrants and refugees from Asia and Latin America has changed the American religious landscape," Tweed said. "Lawrence's book makes an especially significant contribution to the conversation about that cultural development since he highlights race and class."

In his analysis, Lawrence examines three areas--why the immigrants chose to migrate to largely populated urban areas, how the U.S. census groups certain immigrants as "Asian" and how this classification minimizes the ties to their country of origin. Finally, he looks at whether one's sense of nationality changes with age.

"Religion is not a way to pigeonhole someone," he said. "You can be very Muslim, but also be very American because you appreciate the freedom and opportunity of the country. Loyalty to one's own background is an important part of being American."

As the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus humanities professor of religion, Lawrence teaches courses such as Religions of Asia and Islamic Civilizations. Other than teaching, Lawrence is also an ordained Episcopal priest and anticipates the publication of three other books within the next two years.

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