Muslims by the numbers

On Tuesday, May 22, Pew Research released a comprehensive survey of American Muslims, that covered cultural, social, religious, political, and other domains. I will leave the mundane out-of-context analysis to the fearmongers and apologists, but I would like to discuss some specific observations. See each quote from the survey below followed by my analysis.

"Interviews were conducted in English, Arabic, Urdu and Farsi."
This is not unimportant. I do believe, even over the phone, that conducting the discussion in one's native language, versus English, changes the dynamic and can have an effect on one's replies. It's a question of the mental state one adopts in given circumstances. I would be interested to see a re-sorted survey that took into account the language in which the survey was administered - my guess is that responses collected in Arabic, Urdu, or Farsi would indicate more tolerance of terrorism in the name of Islam as well as more negative attitudes toward the US.
"Muslim Americans hold liberal political views on questions about the size and scope of government. At the same time, however, they are socially conservative and supportive of a strong role for government in protecting morality."
This finding has somewhat disappointing implications for those of us forcefully arguing for a Republican outreach to American Muslims. The survey's finding that 70% of American Muslims favor a bigger government rebuts the conventional wisdom that the entrepreneurial nature of immigrant populations makes them a natural fit for the fiscally conservative approach that characterized the GOP (pre-W).

While the survey indicated that a position of discouraging homosexuality predominates, that was the only specific social issue explored. I find it disappointing that the survey did not seek detailed information on American Muslim disposition toward abortion, right-to-die, or stem-cell issues. So the data doesn't give Republicans of the "big-tent" persuasion much to work with. (continued...)

"23% say they converted to Islam. Nine-in-10 converts to Islam were born in the United States."

The survey further indicates that 40% of Muslim converts (or reverts, as Islam refers to them) are non-black. That means that more than 10% of Muslims in the United States are white Americans who converted. I found that very interesting.

"23% live in a household with at least one non-Muslim."

When we take African-American Muslims out of the equation, we find that 12% of Muslims in the US live with non-Muslims. Another interesting statistic that challenges conventional views about American followers of Islam.

"64% of Muslims from the Arab region say they are white, while 20% say they are some other or mixed race."

In my view, inhabitants of the Mediterranean zone and the Arabian Peninsula are members of the same race as Europeans. The anthropological record will back me up on that.

Given that "Arab" is a classification that encompasses a span of countries including Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, and others, it seems that the Arab-American Muslims interviewed in this survey from nations like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, etc. agree with me. The desire to push for minority non-white status is an ongoing debate in the Arab-American community.

"Just 40% of Muslim Americans say groups of Arabs carried out those attacks."

God protect us from stupid conspiracy theories. It would be nice to see this broken out by country of birth - I would bet that those from Arab countries registered even lower than 40%. I regret the intellectual laziness that dominates the Arab World and boils everything down to a ridiculous conspiracy theory. If Arabs took even half the extraordinary energy they waste dreaming up imaginary plots against them and channeled that creativity into more noble pursuits, imagine the possibilities...

I also would like to know why this question was phrased as "groups of Arabs" and not "groups of Muslims".

"39% have come to the U.S. since 1990."

I must admit, I found this a bit alarming. Even adjusting for new births, this means that the population of American Muslims has increased by more than half in only 2 decades. Granted, in raw numbers it's not a big jump, considering that Pew determined the total number of Muslims in the US to be only about 1.5 million, but immigration of any kind needs to be conducted in measured and sensible ways.

Naturally, I am not of the belief that America should be open only to white Europeans, but any incoming population with customs (or in this case, religion) that differs from the majority of Americans needs to be integrated smoothly. This is not without precedent. For perspective, Arab immigration accounted for less than 1% of the flood of people who entered the US in the early 2oth century (and 90%+ at that time were Christian) and the immigration quotas instituted in 1921 and 1924 were largely aimed to curtail the massive inflow of Italians.

"The poll reveals that Muslims in the United States reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries."

Frankly, I do not care whether American Muslims paint a prettier picture than the mess that is the Muslim Community in Europe. What is important to me is that any immigrant or any citizen of the United States rejects violent ideology of any kind - and right now we have a minority that does not feel that way. Let's face it.

Just because the United States has not experienced the riots that engulfed France, started by disenchanted Muslim inhabitants there, does not mean that everything is honky-dory. We do have a problem and it is up to the American Muslim and Arab-American community to clean its/our own house, which is not made any easier when the rhetoric of fearmongers creates a reflexively defensive posture within the community.

On the topic of Muslims in Europe however, stay tuned to what commentator Mona el-Tahawy, who opines frequently on efforts to reform Islam, has to say. She recently told me:

"I'm writing about the formation of a new Centrist political party by Naser Khader, the Syrian born member of the Danish parliament. He was also the first Muslim parliamentarian in Denmark. Muslims might be better socially integrated in the U.S. but they're doing better politically in Europe. Khader is the head of a new political party that could very form a coalition with the government should early elections be called; there are two Muslim junior ministers in the Dutch government, etc."

"Nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. say they think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than as Americans."

This may seem shocking, but 42% of American Christians identify with their religion more than the US. The trend continues amongst the very religious - 70% of devout Muslims and 60% of devout Christians identify with their faith before their nation.

The shocking part though was the desire for many, particularly those of Arab background, to have it both ways. Only 15% of Arab-American Muslims identified themselves as Americans first, but double that number volunteered the answer "both" when presented the choice. Only 7% of American Christians offered that response.

"Very few Muslim Americans – just 1% – say that suicide bombings against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam; an additional 7% say suicide bombings are sometimes justified in these circumstances."

Another 5% said "rarely justified" plus 9% who didn't know how to answer or refused to answer. Quite disappointing to say the least that only 78% of American Muslims think that suicide bombings against civilian targets are never justified, which of course is the only acceptable and - I would argue - the only proper Islamic response.

However, I would like to know how the answers might have differed if the question specified the location of the suicide bombings: in the US, in Europe, or in Israel - not because I view any life as less valuable than any other, I most certainly do not. But I have seen all too often that people living afar from conflicts to which they have emotional attachment tend to project their own visions of glory onto those who actually suffer.

Thus, war becomes like a biblical video game. Arabs will make absurd justifications for suicide bombing - "we don't have tanks and planes, so we must strap the bombs to our bodies". umm, who is we? A friend in Syria made this argument once, defending Palestinian suicide bombers. I pointed out to him how easy it was for him to glorify the Arab cause while his son spent his days at basketball practice and C++ programming classes. The IDF doesn't come through and shut down Mezzeh when a suicide bomber strikes in the West Bank, I told him, so how convenient for him to excuse repugnant tactics.

And I would bet that the same phenomenon likely applies in this country - I would like to hear honest answers from the survey's respondents: Is suicide bombing acceptable to defend Islam at a local shopping mall in Anytown, USA, or only on buses in West Jerusalem?

But this trend is not unique to Arabs and Muslims. Israeli citizens, who are by-and-large required to serve in their country's army, express disdain for the hawkishness of Jewish individuals in the US and elsewhere that have never lived in Israel nor done any military service on behalf of the Jewish state, but who advocate very harsh action against Palestinians. "It's easy to talk tough when you're not the one who has to do the dirty work," I have been told by Israeli colleagues. Checkpoints, curfews, home demolitions, as well as other brute and humiliating aspects of occupation sound just dandy when someone else is going door-to-door implementing them. The view is pretty good from Alan Dershowitz's podium.

"5% of Muslim Americans express even somewhat favorable opinions of al Qaeda."

1% said "very favorable" while the other 4% said "somewhat favorable". Based upon my own observations and interactions, it seems that there exists a certain admiration for Osama bin Laden amongst some Muslims because he is perceived to have stood up for Islam against American hegemony - even if there is obvious recognition that the tactics are unacceptable.

In the age of YouTube and satellite TV, the appeal to Muslims - particularly young ones - of Bin Laden's style of speaking and presentation needs to be taken into account and understood. Technology has enabled his self-assured yet soft-spoken manner to project a much-undeserved aura of righteousness that has clearly poisoned minds, even here in the US. There needs to be a counterweight.

"Younger Muslim Americans are both much more religiously observant and more accepting of Islamic extremism than are older Muslim Americans."

The survey further reveals that 60% of American Muslims under 30 tend to think of themselves first as Muslims, not Americans - and 15% of them say that suicide bombings can be often or sometimes justified in the defense of Islam - only 69% say never. That is a disturbing trend that conjures up images of the disgruntled London subway bombers - middle class kids who expressed their discontentment with society in a deadly way.

These are malleable minds looking for answers and they need to be reached with a message that will steer them away from those who advocate murder or terrorizing others. The survey also notes that the American-born generation, unlike their parents who are largely sick of the integration of religion and politics in their home countries, "express overwhelming support for the notion that mosques should express their views on social and political matters."

Thus, the survey indicates the need for massive outreach with a positive Islamic message of devotion yet integration - through internet and satellite means, as well as face-to-face interactions in mosques.

"By nearly two-to-one (63%-32%), Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society."

Again, that mean still seem too low for comfort, but it actually matched the corresponding question of devout Christians almost exactly: 62%-29%.

"43% say that Muslim immigrants arriving in the U.S. should mostly adopt American customs and ways of life, though a significant minority (26%) thinks that new immigrants should try to remain distinct."

I was not able to find an exactly comparable question on a corresponding survey, but I would be curious to know what Latino immigrants would have to say about the assimilation process.

In conclusion, I am reminded of the remarks of Malek Akkad, the son of the late, great Mustapha Akkad, when his father was honored at the Arab American Institute's Kahlil Gibran Awards gala in 2006. The elder Akkad, killed with his daughter during a suicide bombing of a wedding in Jordan in 2005, was a noted Hollywood director and Syrian-American, who created the film "The Message" about the events of early Islam.

Malek quoted his father as saying, "I am more free to practice Islam in America than anywhere else." After reading through this informative (if imperfect) Pew survey, I would not be surprised if most American Muslims agreed.