Jedeh would probably be home by now if he hadn’t been asked by a mosque in Boston to help with special nightly Ramadan prayers. After graduating in May with a master’s degree in clinical research from the New York University College of Dentistry, he’s ready to get back to the small city of Zintan in northwest Libya, where he plans to teach dentistry and work at a local clinic.
“It’s different,” said Jedeh, who flies back on Aug. 20. “I miss the Islamic atmosphere.”
Despite his homesickness, Jedeh said he has had a positive experience in the U.S. He initially worried about his wife’s safety because she wears a niqab, or face veil, but except for one insult shouted by a passerby, he and his family have been treated respectfully.
“I believe you cannot judge any country and say, all people are good or all people are bad,” said Jedeh.
The opinions of Muslim immigrants and students like Jedeh are important because they shape how Muslims abroad see America, much more so than the mosques, media, and politicians in their countries, experts say. Some Middle East researchers say American policy makers and think tanks should pay more attention to people like Jedeh here at home as they work to shape perceptions of America abroad
“We have been too quick to tell stories about Muslims who have the one-dimensional view of America,” said Edward Curtis, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “The deeper these contacts are, the more accurate their knowledge of America will be.”
Research shows there’s work to do. Recent polls from Pew and Gallup show that more than half of people in Muslim-majority countries have an unfavorable view of the U.S., and roughly 80 percent have a negative view in critical U.S. allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey.
A 2011 Pew Research Center report found that 63 percent of America’s estimated 2.6 million Muslims are foreign born, with about a quarter having arrived since 2000. Between 80,000 and 90,000 Muslim immigrants have arrived annually to America over the last few years, according to the report.
So why do immigrants like Jedeh matter? Because they have friends back home, and those friends may be more influenced by him than their local leaders or slanted media reports.
As a boy in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, Hossein Fariborzi used to believe what he heard about America in the media and during Friday sermons. America was violent, depraved, and anti-Muslim. He was told that America was a place where Muslim women risked attack if they wore their headscarves in public, and where Muslim men practiced Islam behind closed doors.