In the days since al-Qaeda became a household word, Westerners have grappled with the distinction between radical Islam and Islam as practiced in mainstream Muslim culture. To gain insights into the impact of religion on Muslim youth, the first phase of a long-term study has found that social success is strongly linked to religious involvement within the Islamic majority nation of Indonesia, according to the study’s co-author Doran French, professor and chair of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University.

This study of Muslim 13-year-olds found a correlation between religious involvement across many indices of social competence or success. French and his collaborators found that adolescents with higher degrees of spirituality and religious practice were more popular with peers, had greater academic achievement, displayed more prosocial behavior (being helpful to others), had greater self-esteem, and were more able to regulate their behavior. Those with higher religious involvement were less likely to exhibit deviant behavior or experience negative “internalizing behavior” such as depression or anxiety.

French suggested that a key to interpreting these findings is understanding the context of a homogenously religious culture, where religion permeates society and is a public, community identity rather than a compartmentalized, private experience as in the U.S. For example, he said, the team’s research assistants would stop meetings to observe the call to prayers, for which television shows also are interrupted.

“I think within a homogeneous religious society, being a competent person, being a successful person also means being a religious person,” French said.


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