Take your pick. Tony Carnes is either a sociological journalist or a journalistic sociologist.
Either way, since 2010 he’s led a team that walks the 6,375 miles of New York City streets, block by block, for interviews, documentation, and analysis of local religious activity -- with remarkable findings. Any newswriter interested in religion or immigration in America’s largest city can acquire ample material from the online magazine Carnes edits, “A Journey through NYC Religions.”
A transplanted Texan turned patriotic New Yorker, Carnes – full disclosure: a personal friend – has been a college teacher, wrote academic publications, and leads a university seminar in social science methods. But he’s also been an active journalist, including years as a senior writer for Christianity Today. His non-profit research organization, founded in 1989, has done field work in mainland China, the dying Soviet Union and rising Russian Federation, and the United States. A college convert to evangelical Christianity, Carnes attends Manhattan’s noted Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
A series of Journey articles launched May 18 is taking a fresh ground-level look at Islam. After the 9/11 attacks, the media widely reported that New York City had 100-plus mosques (“masjids”). But an early “Journey” report located 175. A major survey by Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky listed 192 as of 2011 but that covered the entire metropolitan area. The latest “Journey” mosque total for the city alone is 285 (not counting informal “prayer spaces”): 98 in Brooklyn (long the nation’s biggest concentration), 93 in Queens (quickly catching up), 47 in the Bronx (many for Africans), 39 in Manhattan and eight in Staten Island.
They range from the splendid Islamic Cultural Center of New York dedicated in 1991, which fills a Manhattan block at East 96thStreet and holds thousands, to crowded basements where dozens worship. “Journey” tells the story of one such basement mosque that prospered, expanded into the storefront on the first floor, then moved into a defunct church in 2012 while a new mosque occupied its prior quarters.
New York City has long been a magnet for immigrants. “Journey” reports that Muslim proliferation closely follows immigration patterns and predicts the city’s “mosque-building boom” that started in the 1970s will continue for the next several decades.
As with Christian and Jewish immigrants in prior times, mosques cluster around ethnicities, whether the Mandika from Gambia or the Dawoodi Bohra from India’s Gujarat state. A poignant article by journalism grad student Jeff Tyson profiles believers who send youths to Quran memorization schools back in Senegal because it’s so hard to teach them in hectic urban America.
These young mosques are crucial for the well-being of immigrant singles and families adjusting to their new world. Yet city rental fees are steep and owning a building is often a distant dream. Low-income immigrants are further saddled with the city public schools’ unusual -- and discriminatory -- policy of renting quarters to all sorts of community groups but not worshipping congregations.
Speaking of secularism, Carnes and Co. say both religious and non-religious people often “have no idea how thick New York City culture is with religious faith” of vast variety. The members of his team say today’s metropolis is neither the Sodom of the onetime stereotype nor the “secular city” hailed by 1960s liberals. Today’s New York City is not holy ground, but it’s “post-secular.” Journalists should take note.