Little support for terrorism among American Muslims


By Richard Potts

Washington, D.C. -- Muslim Americans are largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners elsewhere, according to the Pew Forum's nationwide survey of Muslims in America.

The study found that Muslims account for 0.6% of the U.S. population, or 1.5 million people. Two-thirds are foreign born, immigrating from Arab nations and South Asia.  Native-born Muslims, meanwhile, are likely to be converts.

Regardless of origin, U.S. Muslims are decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes, the report claims. This belief is reflected in Muslim American income and education levels, which generally mirror those of the public. 

"Seventy-two percent of them take the very American point of view that with hard work you can get ahead and succeed in this society," said Pew Forum president Andrew Kohut. "That's an even larger percentage than the general public."

American Muslims also worry about Islamic extremism at nearly the same rate as the population at large.  Seven in ten Muslims are "somewhat" or "very" concerned about extremism, compared to 80% of the broader population. 

"Muslims in the United States reject Islamic extremism to an even greater extent than do Muslims in Western Europe, and to a much greater extent than Muslims living in the Middle East and Asia," Kohut said.

"Unlike Western Europe, they are not a small minority who are less well off and frustrated with economic opportunities and, to some extent, socially isolated."

The report shows that Muslim identity is stronger than "American" identity for nearly half of those surveyed. However, nearly a third of Muslims think of themselves first as American.

Identifying first with one's religion is not unique to Muslims. Religious identity is almost equally as high among American Christians, 42% of whom say they think of themselves first as Christian. Evangelical Christians identify with their religion first at a much higher rate than Muslims do (62%).

"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," said report author Dr. Luis Lugo. "Somehow religiosity and modernity are coming together for this community as it is for Christians in this country."

Christians are, however, more likely than Muslims to identify first as "American" and second as "Christian" (48% versus 27%).

The report emphasized the low incidence of support for terrorism among American Muslims. But with 8% of American Muslims - mostly the young - saying violence is sometimes or always justified to defend Islam, the research team expressed alarm.

"There is concern that there is a small minority, found within the youth within the Muslim community, as well as within the African American Muslim community, that have either supported or tacitly justify some form of extremism, including suicide bombings," said Farid Senzai, director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

"There is a pendulum effect for many youth. As they enter universities and begin to form their identities, they are influenced by peers as well as sources outside the mainstream Muslim community...and that information often radicalizes them," Senzai claims.

The report indicates that a generational change in underway in the West. What is not clear is why this is taking place.

The authors insist the data are inconclusive as to whether any "generational change" is linked to stronger Muslim identities among youth or whether it is linked to greater religious observance, or to the general tendency of people under 30 years of age to be more violent.

The report confirms most clearly that generalizing about American Muslims risks ignoring both troubling and encouraging facts.

"Just to add a layer of complexity.  When you look at the numbers on personal satisfaction, this group under 30 (years of age) is by no means alienated," Luis Lugo said.

"You get the highest levels of personal satisfaction in that age cohort. This is not reflecting some bout of existential angst that leads to support for terrorism. It is a complex picture indeed."