Report

Muslims in America (Fall 2007 Trust Magazine article)

  • December 14, 2007
  • By Sandra Salmans

Who Are They? What Do They Think of Important Issues? A Ground-breaking Survey Finds Out.

For many Muslim Americans, as for many other Americans, modern history is divided into two periods: Before 9/11. And after.

Before 9/11, Muslim Americans were “largely invisible,” as Newsweek magazine noted earlier this year. The only Muslims most Americans knew by name were Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Muhammad Ali. One measure of the extent to which things changed after 9/11 is that Newsweek related these observations recently in a special report, “Islam in America” and featured dozens of Muslim Americans on its cover.

Providing the statistical unpinning for that story was the first-ever, nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim Americans—conducted by the Pew Research Center. The scale was ambitious: To obtain a national sample of 1,050 Muslims living in the United States, the center conducted more than 55,000 interviews, and— also a first—held them in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu as well as English. (The executive summary of the report was translated into Arabic.)

The survey—“Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”— estimated that some 1.5 million adult Muslims live in the United States; combining that projection with the Census Bureau data, it estimated the total population of Muslims in the U.S. at 2.34 million. Beyond the numbers, it found them to be highly assimilated. Whether foreign- or nativeborn, they are decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes, and believe on balance that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society. Of immigrants, 65 percent are citizens, and, of those who arrived prior to 1990, 92 percent are citizens.

In general, Muslim Americans have a generally positive view of the larger society. Most say their communities are excellent or good places to live. Moreover, 71 percent of Muslim Americans agree that most people who want to get ahead in the U.S. can make it if they are willing to work hard. This belief is reflected in Muslim-American income and education levels, which generally mirror those of the public. And 63 percent (to 32 percent) of Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

At the same time, they are unhappy with the ongoing war on terror and suspicious of the U.S.'s motives. Younger Muslims particularly, especially African-American Muslims, are more sympathetic to Islamic extremism, and American Muslims under the age of 30 are less opposed to suicide bombing than the general population. Still, American Muslims overall seem much more moderate and assimilated than their counterparts in Europe, as data from other recent Pew Research Center surveys indicate (see box, below).

“Overall, this is a very, very positive story for the vast majority of Muslim Americans,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the center. “This is a mostly middle class and mainstream public. They're happy with their lives.”

Other key findings of the survey:

Muslim Americans are a highly diverse population, composed largely of immigrants; in fact, those surveyed came from 68 different countries. “Next to the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, this has got to be one of the most representative Muslim communities anywhere in the world,” quips Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who oversaw the project with Kohut. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of adult Muslims in the U.S. were born elsewhere. A relatively large proportion of Muslim immigrants are from Arab countries, but many also come from Pakistan and other South Asian countries. Among native-born Muslims, roughly two-thirds are African American (20 percent of U.S. Muslims overall), and most are converts to Islam.

Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. For example, just one in 20 people surveyed express a favorable view of al Qaeda.However, some segments of the U.S. Muslim public—notably native-born African-American Muslims—are less likely to completely condemn al Qaeda or radical Islam. In addition, 15 percent of Muslims under the age of 30 say that suicide bombing could be justified “often” or “sometimes”— compared to 6 percent among Muslims over 30 years of age.

A majority of Muslim Americans (53 percent) say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S. since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most also believe that the government “singles out” Muslims for increased surveillance and monitoring.

Relatively few Muslim Americans believe the U.S.-led war on terror is a sincere effort to reduce terrorism, and many doubt that Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Even though Osama bin Laden proclaimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, only 40 percent of Muslim Americans say groups of Arabs carried out those attacks.

One area that came in for considerable attention was the extent of religious identity. Of those surveyed, 47 percent thought of themselves as “Muslim first” rather than American first. In this respect, as in many others, noted Lugo, Muslim Americans closely resembled other Americans. (A Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2006 found that 42 percent of Christians—and 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants— identified primarily as Christians rather than as Americans.) Muslim Americans' religion “is very important in their lives,” Lugo notes. “Second, like most religious Americans, Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society like the United States.”

Another similarity, he adds, is the considerable internal differences within the Muslim American community— Sunnis, Shias—much like the many kinds of Christians, as well as different levels of religious commitment. Pakistanis are among the most devout, Iranians the least. “The notion of Islam being a monolithic religion that by default supports extremism is not substantiated by what we've found here,” says senior project director Amaney Jamal. “This is a very important and impressive finding.”

A solid majority (61 per cent) of American Muslims say they believe it is possible to both guarantee Israel's right to exist and to guarantee the rights of Palestinians. That number, in sharp contrast to the view of Muslims elsewhere, is comparable to the view of U.S. non-Muslims (67 percent). However, while Muslim Americans agree with other Americans in disapproving of the war in Iraq, they also disapprove of the war in Afghanistan, which is not true of the general public.

The data on African-American Muslims and youth attracted particular attention. The poll found that only 36 percent of African-American Muslims have a highly unfavorable view of al Qaeda, compared to more than 60 percent of American Muslims overall. “They are clearly the most disillusioned segment of the Muslim American population,” says Kohut. “They're far less satisfied with the way things are going in the country. They have lower incomes, lower education levels. They're much more skeptical that hard work in this country really pays off.”

On the other hand, African Americans are no more likely to favor suicide bombing than the general Muslim American population. Instead, it is younger Muslim Americans who are more likely to say that it can be justified. One reason, Kohut theorizes, is that it is simply a “youth phenomenon”—that is, that young people tend to be more inclined to violence than their elders.

A compounding factor, Jamal suggests, could be that younger people are subjected more to the stereotypes and name-calling that had followed 911.

And Farid Senzai, a project advisor who is director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, notes that the data do not indicate that Muslim American youth are contemplating suicide bombing themselves. “They've been able to justify it as a last resort since they feel there is no other solution” against greater military occupying forces, he says.

The small size of the Muslim American population— approximately 0.6 percent of all Americans—and the difficulty of reaching this population presented unusual challenges to center researchers. For example, standard telephone survey approaches, such as random dialing, would have been prohibitively expensive. Accordingly, staff did considerable spadework before developing the questionnaire. The project created a panel of eight leading experts on Muslim Americans to provide advice on the project. It was headed by Jamal, who is an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University specializing in the study of Muslim public opinion, both in the U.S. and abroad, and is herself a Muslim of Palestinian descent.

Two members of the advisory panel conducted six focus groups of Muslim Americans in four U.S. cities to explore topics and potential reactions to questions for the survey. These groups included Arab Americans in the Detroit area, African-American Muslims in Atlanta, a mixed group of Muslim Americans in Washington, D.C., and Iranian Americans in the Los Angeles area. The groups provided insights into terminology, nuances of language and issues, and strategies to help reach Muslims who might be reluctant to identify their religion.

The survey received wide media coverage, with some ambivalence about which findings to emphasize: Should they stress that most American Muslims reject extremism? Or that, in the under-30 group, only 69 percent said that suicide bombing could “never” be justified to defend Islam? Some newspapers switched back and forth between the two versions in a 24-hour period. “Poll: A quarter of younger Muslim Americans support suicide bombings in some circumstances,” was an item on a USA Today blog on the day the study was released. But the next day the newspaper led with this headline: “American Muslims reject extremes.”

The survey also attracted attention on Capitol Hill. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV referred to it during a Senate committee hearing on terrorist ideology; and Lugo, Senzai and Scott Keeter, the center's director of survey research, discussed results and implications before a bipartisan study group for Congress that examines the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. Kohut was invited to brief senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security.

In part, the intense interest in the survey reflected the general dearth of information about Muslim Americans. “This is a population we've been only able to speculate about or base our understanding on limited surveys,” says Jamal. “This is a groundbreaking project in all its aspects.

“What emerges from the study is the great success of the Muslim American population in terms of its socioeconomic assimilation and integration,” she concludes. “In many respects, the population mirrors that of the mainstream American population. Given the fact that, for the past six years, Muslim Americans have been dealing with the backlash of 9/11, these numbers are extremely, extremely impressive.”

For the full report on Muslim Americans, plus FAQs, go to the Web site of Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Sandra Salmans is senior writer of Trust.

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Europe's Muslims: A Different Picture

Assimilation isn't the norm for Muslims in other Western countries. While more than half of American Muslims think of themselves as Americans first, the picture is quite different in most of Europe, where Muslims tend to identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as British, Spanish or German, for example. The exception is France, where Muslims are split almost evenly on this question. In fact, the level of Muslim identification in Britain, Spain and Germany is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria and Jordan, and even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia.

Those are some findings of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes survey last year. The study, conducted in 13 countries, did find that Muslims in Europe were generally positive about conditions in their host nation, and substantial majorities in all four countries favored a moderate version of Islam. However, European Muslims expressed morereservations about blending in than their U.S. counterparts. Asked whether Muslims coming into their country today wanted to assimilate, only 30 percent of German Muslims said they wanted to adopt national customs; it was 41 percent in Britain, 53 percent in Spain and 78 percent in France. Most Muslims surveyed felt that Islamic identity among Muslims in those countries was growing.

The belief that terrorism is justifiable in the defense of Islam had a sizable number of adherents among Europe's Muslim minorities. Roughly one in seven in France, Spain and Great Britain (but one in 15 in Germany) felt that suicide bombings against civilian targets could at least sometimes be justified to defend Islam against its enemies. But while the numbers for American Muslims are far lower, in one significant respect they agree: Fewer than half of the Muslims in Europe and the U.S. said they believed that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.