US Muslims: young, diverse, striving

A new portrait of Muslim Americans depicts a group that has achieved a great deal, yet struggles for a sense of belonging.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Wearing a Muslim head scarf, Monique Barrett has her driver’s license photo taken in Oklahoma City. A new report shows high levels of education and employment among Muslim Americans, but the group lags in political participation and a sense of well-being.
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A "national portrait" of Muslim Americans, released Monday by Gallup, depicts the youngest and most racially diverse religious community in the country as striving for a secure place in American society and an active role in public life.

The report describes a group that has achieved successes and shares much in common with other Americans, yet struggles for a sense of belonging in a country where some citizens harbor post-9/11 suspicions about the Islamic faith.

Drawing on data from three distinct Gallup surveys, the report compares Muslim Americans with other religious groups and the general US population, as well as with Muslims in other countries.

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Muslim Americans, for instance, are among the most highly educated religious groups in the US, second to Jews. In a remarkable finding, 43 percent of Muslim-American women hold a college or postgraduate degree, compared with 29 percent of US women overall. They are as likely as Muslim men to hold professional jobs. The group shows strong employment rates, including 30 percent in professional work and 25 percent self-employed.

Muslim Americans volunteer in their communities to the same degree as other US citizens, and they give slightly more to charity. While 80 percent consider religion important to them, weekly worship attendance (41 percent) is typical of other religious groups. Their political participation has risen rapidly in recent years, though it still lags behind that of others.

At the same time, Muslims are less likely than others to feel that they are "thriving." They express less satisfaction with community life and share with Jews a greater sense of worry and stress than other Americans.

"The poll shows that the past eight years have taken their toll on Muslim Americans, particularly youths," says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies.

The Muslim community includes by far the highest proportion of young adults (18 to 29 years), with 36 percent in that category, compared with 9 percent of Protestants, 17 percent of Catholics, 23 percent of Mormons, 16 percent of Jews, and 18 percent of the US population.

Muslim youths generally speak in positive terms about their lives, expressing satisfaction with their jobs and standards of living. Yet they are the least likely to consider themselves to be "thriving," with 40 percent agreeing, compared with 69 percent of young Jews and 61 percent of Protestant youths. Also, a bare majority of young Muslims say they are registered to vote, far lower than others of their age.

Overall, 64 percent of Muslims are registered, compared with 81 percent of the general population. Some of the lag in political participation relates to immigrant families, says Amaney Jamal, a Muslim-American who teaches politics at Princeton University in New Jersey. "It takes some political socialization before they are fully ready to participate."

For the most part, however, Muslim Americans "believe direct engagement is absolutely vital for their own standing in this society," Dr. Jamal says in an interview. "They also care about issues in the Muslim world and want to have some say in how those develop over time."

In the political realm, US Muslims are spread more evenly across the spectrum than are other religious groups. Thirty-eight percent describe themselves as moderate, with 29 percent saying they are liberal and 25 percent conservative.

In fact, although Muslims have a socially conservative image, they are the most likely group after Jewish-Americans to call themselves liberal. Seventy-nine percent voted for Barack Obama, the highest percentage of any religious group.

Mr. Obama not only spoke in terms of equality and embracing all religions, Jamal explains, but he also symbolizes for many immigrants "what they hope for themselves – a man who worked hard and climbed the mobility ladder and succeeded, despite discrimination.

"He is also seen as being able to influence Muslim politics in a more positive way while simultaneously being serious on the war on terror," she adds.

Voices of Muslim Americans from various walks of life appear in the report, and a predominant theme is civic involvement. One individual emphasizes "stepping out of our community into participatory America;" another calls on Muslim youths to enter public service.

Altaf Husain, a former national president of the Muslim Student Association now at Howard University in Washington, urges "an unrelenting focus on civic engagement ... to contribute to the betterment of American society."

At the same time, Muslims are struggling for a greater sense of unity within their own community. Gallup finds they are by far the most racially diverse religious group in the US: thirty-five percent identify as African-American, 28 percent as white, 18 percent as Asian, and 1 percent as Hispanic. Other religious groups surveyed are from 76 percent to 93 percent "white."

Cultural and other differences between African-American and some immigrant Muslim groups have not been easy to bridge.

"The Muslim community is a cross section of America's racial mosaic and holds within it the same struggles America as a whole has to deal with," says Ms. Mogahed of Gallup. "They are actively working for unity, and this may help America heal."

Tayyibah Taylor, founder of Azizah magazine, speaks in the report of plans of the Muslim Alliance of North America to create town meetings across the US to engage in reconciliation and healing.

"Muslim Americans: A National Portrait" includes findings from the first-ever nationwide representative random sample of Muslim Americans (in the Gallup Daily Poll), as well as from Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, and Gallup World Poll.

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