In many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream America

The first comprehensive survey of Muslim-Americans shows that they are largely assimilated.

The first comprehensive survey of Muslim-Americans, released May 22, tells a story that should be reassuring to Muslims and their fellow citizens alike.

It's a surprisingly positive story, though tinged with unease about what the future may hold. While the great majority of Muslims are foreign-born and have come to the United States fairly recently, they are happy with their lives, largely assimilated, and remarkably American in outlook. As a whole, they mirror the general population in education and income, and in the role religion plays in their lives.

"This is a group living as most Americans are," says Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center (PRC), which carried out the survey. "This is a mostly middle-class, mainstream public ... [that has] the point of view that with hard work, you can get ahead in the society."

Forty-one percent of US Muslims have household incomes of $50,000 or more, and 24 percent are self-employed or own a small business. They hold moderate views on the issues that have divided Muslims and the West, but feel their place in the US is threatened by misunderstanding and a lack of acceptance.

"This raises the question of how does a minority community embrace its success and American-ness while dealing with a mainstream sentiment that views it as a potential enemy 'other' in its midst," says Amaney Jamal, assistant professor of political science at Princeton University in New Jersey and a project adviser.

A national portrait of Muslims has been difficult to sketch because the US Census does not ask questions on religion, and the population is too small to show up in sufficient numbers in polls. For this survey, almost 60,000 interviews involving four languages were held to find a representative sample of 1,050 adults. In the process, PRC came up with a national estimate of 2.4 million Muslims, of which 1.5 million are adults, making Muslims 0.6 percent of the US population.

The Muslim community is diverse: 35 percent are native-born, with two-thirds of those African-Americans. The 65 percent who are foreign-born come from 68 countries, with no ethnic group accounting for more than 8 percent.

"Next to the yearly pilgrimage to [Mecca], this has to be the most representative community in the world!" says Luis Lugo, director of Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Yet the rate of US citizenship is very high: 77 percent overall. It is 92 percent among those who arrived in America before 1990, which Dr. Lugo says is about 30 percentage points higher than among Hispanic immigrants.

Almost two-thirds of Muslim-Americans see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. When asked if they see themselves as a Muslim or American first, 47 percent said Muslim. That compares with 42 percent of American Christians (and 62 percent of evangelicals) who say they are Christians first.

Indeed, Muslims are similar to other Americans in terms of faith. More than 70 percent say religion is very important in their lives, 61 percent pray every day, and 40 percent attend mosque once a week.

"They are reinforcing the religious character of American society even as they are diversifying it," Dr. Lugo adds.

One unusual development is that Muslims under 30 attend mosque more regularly than older generations, exactly the opposite of Christian youths.

As Islam has come under scrutiny post-9/11, young Muslims have sought to learn more about their faith and strengthen their sense of identity. One area of concern lies in youth views toward Islamic extremism. More than 75 percent of Muslim-Americans express concern about Islamic extremism around the world, and only 8 percent say that suicide bombing can ever be justified. Yet 15 percent of Muslim youths say it can sometimes be justified.

Farid Senzai, research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Clinton Township, Mich., says his work suggests some Muslim youths can be radicalized by peers or Internet sources outside mainstream Islam. But the survey finding doesn't mean American youths are "about to mount a suicide bombing," he adds. "It's more that they see what's happening abroad ... and feel that, in situations of occupation, it is a last resort against an asymmetrically stronger occupying force."

The survey also found that 61 percent of US Muslims say a way can be found to guarantee Israel's existence along with the rights and needs of Palestinians. Where Muslims part company with other Americans is in their dissatisfaction with US foreign policy and in their sense that the war on terror is not a sincere effort. Most surprising, perhaps, is that only 40 percent accept that a group of Arabs perpetrated the events of 9/11. Gallup and other Pew surveys have shown similar findings in other countries. "Muslims around the world are reluctant to believe Muslims could do such a thing," Dr. Kohut says.

The survey reveals that native-born African-Americans are the most alienated portion of the Muslim population. Dealing with racial and religious intolerance, they are less satisfied with American life and believe more than others that Muslims should remain distinct from society.

Despite positive views of their communities, most Muslims feel their lives have become more difficult since 9/11. Some 54 percent say the war on terror singles out Muslims. Prejudice, being viewed as terrorists, and ignorance about Islam top their list of problems. Men and women worry about treatment of women wearing the hijab. Forty-three percent of women always wear the head scarf, while 48 percent never wear one.

"There is a lot of fear that if a repeat of 9/11 occurred, the community wouldn't be able to sustain itself," Dr. Jamal says.

The survey, which also covers political and social values and comparisons with Muslims in other countries, can be found at pewforum.org/surveys/muslim-american.

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