Diversity Champion: Dr. Nazita Lajevardi

April 14, 2021 - Liz Schondelmayer

Nazita Lajevardi

Dr. Nazita Lajevardi is an Assistant Professor in the Michigan State University Department of Political Science. Since joining MSU's faculty in 2018, Dr. Lajevardi has established herself as an on-campus expert on topics such as identity politics, voting rights and immigration in the United States. 

As a tenure-track faculty member at MSU, Dr. Lajevardi is an established researcher and beloved teacher. Balancing her commitment to the Political Science Department with her involvement with the MSU Muslim Studies Program, supporting diversity on campus is central to everything Dr. Lajevardi does. 

I joined MSU in January 2018. Since joining, and in addition to my position in the department in Political Science, I have been privileged to be a part of the Muslim Studies Program, which has served as an important home for me as a scholar, as a colleague, and as a curious observer of the world around me. The program connects scholars with similar interests from around the university, centralizes DEI efforts in every mandate it takes on, and connects our university to leaders, visionaries, activists, and policymakers around the globe. I cannot express my gratitude enough, as it has provided a comfortable, supportive, and empowering home for me at MSU. 

Another positive aspect of my time at MSU has been getting to know the students I teach. As someone who studies race in America and teaches minority politics to our students, I am fortunate to be surrounded with brilliant students who participate deeply in class discussions, because the topics we discuss are not simply cerebral for them, it is often deeply reflective of their own lives. For some students – and particularly for some students of color – I am sometimes the first woman of color faculty member who has taught them. And this makes a difference, I think, both for them and for me. The opportunity to teach these classes to students who are deeply engaged has been an honor.

Last year, Dr. Lajevardi published her third book, "Outsides at Home: The Politics of American Islamophobia." The book explores how Muslim Americans have been villianized and victimized by both politicians and the American public following the 9/11 attack. 

The book paints a landscape of how American Muslims fare in American democracy through a diverse lens of perspectives. Little scholarship has been paid to the experiences of US Muslims, particularly in a post-9/11 climate, which has seen them endure widespread discrimination, erasure of civil liberties, and increased negative coverage and discourse. All of these factors, together, raise questions about how US Muslims are being treated in American democracy. 

I was inspired to write this book for numerous reasons. I was just coming of age when the attacks on September 11, 2001 took place. At the age of 14, like others in my age cohort, I was devastated, shaken, and shocked. But the events that followed—like the passage of the Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan, the labeling of Iran as one of three nations belonging to “Axis of Evil,” the invasion of Iraq, the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison—immediately demonstrated my exclusion. 

I am the daughter of Iranian immigrants, raised in a family of practicing Muslims. The internalization at such a formative age that my family’s homeland was being categorized as “Evil” in a state of the union address simply shifted my understanding that I, along with my national/ethnic origin and faith communities, were outsiders. Were we really “evil”? How can that be? What made us “evil”? Could we not be “good”? This reductionist language has been with me since the second it was uttered. I’ve learned that we were not home, we did not belong, and we were unwelcome. We’re still not. As a young person navigating my belonging in the fabric of America, I felt that a book on discrimination against Muslims needed to be written to show just how pervasive it is. 

In what ways does islamophobia impact American politics? How do politicians fuel anti-Islamic and anti-Arab attitudes, and how do these attitudes translate into policy? 

Sometimes, I feel we do not say this bluntly enough, so let me say it now. After partisanship, anti-Muslim hostility was among the single most important predictors of Trump support in 2016. Islamophobia matters for American politics. The public holds rampant negative attitudes and this translates in anti-Muslim candidate and policy support. 

We see support for mosque surveillance, a Muslim ban, restricting weapons sales to Muslims, a ban on Sharia, banning headscarves, and more – all being predicted by anti-Muslim hostility. Islamophobia, moreover, has important consequences for US Muslims themselves . Experiences of societal discrimination – or discrimination in the day-to-day interactions they have with other members of society—reduces their political participation, and discrimination in the 2016 campaign has also been shown to reduce individuals’ public speech in social media forums. 

In honor of Arab American Heritage Month,  Dr. Lajevardi shares some of the Arab Americans who inspire her to do the work that she does. 

While I am not of Arab American origin myself, I am in awe and continuously inspired by Arab Americans who have created space for the broader BIPOC community in America today. 

In academia and professionally, there are so many Arab Americans I am inspired by! But of the top three political scientists, I am first inspired by Professor Amaney Jamal. She is a Professor at Princeton, who was among the first in political science to study Muslims in America, beginning here in Michigan. As a mentor, she helped to strengthen my scholarship, but she has also supported me as an individual when the criticisms have come down rough, as they inevitably do when you stand in a body like this and study prejudice. I am also greatly indebted to Professor Karam Dana, from the University of Washington, Bothell, who early on began to think most creatively about how to survey and sample American Muslims in the most ethical of ways, so that we could begin to answer these questions of most paramount importance. Professor Youssef Chouhou was a peer of mine during our graduate student days, and we continue to be great friends. Professor Chouhoud is a leading scholar of American Muslims who importantly bridges his scholarly work with policymakers. I think this is so important, so that our work is not only heard and reverberated through a vacuum.    

Outside of academia, I am in awe of Dalia Mogahed, who has a leadership role at ISPU (the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding). She is a brilliant scholar, who collects important and unique data on American Muslims,  and an ever-so generous organizer and colleague. Her role in highlighting how American Muslims compare to other religious groups in America has made strides in how we think of policy impacts in a much more relational way. 

Finally, personally, I want to recognize Professor Mohammad Khalil, who directs the Muslim Studies Program here at MSU. Professor Khalil is a brilliant scholar in his own right, but to me he has been a most impactful mentor, colleague, and friend. From day one, he has created a place for me (and so many others!) to belong not just at Michigan State, but in the greater state of Michigan. He is indefatigable – always fighting for change. And to feel the effects of that change on a personal level is so very appreciated. It’s great that he is also a Lakers fan!  

How can all of us be better allies for our Arab American or Islamic peers? What are some ways we can help counter islamophobia or anti-Arab attitudes? 

I appreciate this question so very much. Bystander syndrome is very real, and it does no one any good. Recently, I was in a zoom meeting, and someone made a comment that could be interpreted—at best as prejudicial about the methods we use to study minorities broadly and at worst as Islamophobic—and no one said anything. I looked around this zoom call of approximately 30 people, and everyone fell silent. That kind of silence is resounding. Even though they all said nothing, I heard everything. And I will always remember who I can count on as an ally. It is not enough to send a text message “checking in” minutes after the meeting concludes, when people say nothing in these spaces.  

Many of us cannot afford to say anything, for a myriad of reasons. It could be due to what we study, our junior positions, our gender, our age, our race, our religion, our sexual orientation, our citizenship status – or a combination of those factors. We are already in marginalized positions, and it is up to those with power to say something, and when they don’t, it further reinforces our outsider status and the exclusion that we face. 

We also should think about how Islamophobia hurts our students. Recently, an undergraduate student of mine, a woman of color, recounted to me how she attended an admitted students day for a graduate program where someone among the faculty stated that “Islam is a violent religion.” And…. No. One. Said. Anything. My student – very bravely – reached out to an organizer of the visit day, and some background research had to be done to figure out what had happened, but no apology was made, and no action to our knowledge was taken to even debrief with admitted day recruits. Academia is not as progressive as we wish it was. And when prejudice is so overt, how can we expect people to feel safe? Or even want to come to work with us?