Poll shows how US Muslims are like Protestants – and how they're not

A worldwide Pew poll of Muslims charts opinions on issues from women's rights to which religion is the one true faith, and details how US Muslims fit into the American matrix.

By , Staff writer

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    A group of Muslim men recite passages from the Qur'an before evening prayer and the breaking of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the Iqra Masjid in New York in this file photo.
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Compared to Muslims worldwide, adherents of Islam in the United States are more likely to have close friends who are non-Muslim. They are far more likely to say that believers in many religions can attain heaven. They are considerably less likely to view suicide bombing as acceptable.

Those are some of the results from a major global poll of Muslims in 39 countries, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The survey’s release comes, coincidentally, in the same month America was shaken by Boston Marathon bomb attacks, which focused the nation on the risk of domestic Islamic terrorism. The two suspects named in the case by investigators so far, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are Muslims of Chechen heritage who had lived in the US for a decade.

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While the Tsarnaev brothers appear to have been drawn toward the ideology of violent jihad in defense of Islam, according to emerging evidence, the Pew survey paints a broader portrait of Muslims worldwide – finding, for instance, that a large majority of the world’s 1.6 billion adherents of Islam disapprove of such attacks against civilians.

The poll also puts in sharp relief how varied the views are from country to country, within a religion that encompasses about one-fourth of the global population. (The survey itself was a gargantuan effort spanning five years – through 2012 – with 38,000 face-to-face interviews in 80-plus languages.)

Some highlights:

One true faith? In all but a handful of the 39 countries surveyed, most Muslims agree with the view that their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven. And they say belief in God is necessary to be a moral person.

America is one of the exceptions to this pattern, although about two-thirds of US Muslims are foreign-born, according to Pew Forum researchers. Some 56 percent of US Muslims agree with the view that many religions can lead to heaven, compared with 18 percent in the median nation in the global survey.

Terrorism. Around the world, most Muslims reject suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians in the name of Islam. Some 81 percent of US Muslims, on one end of the spectrum, say such violence against civilians is never justified, while some say it is either often justified (1 percent) or sometimes justified (7 percent) to defend Islam.

By contrast, substantial minorities among Muslims in several countries say such acts of violence are at least sometimes justified, including 26 percent in Bangladesh, 29 percent in Egypt, 39 percent in Afghanistan, and 40 percent in the Palestinian territories.

Role of women. In most countries surveyed, majorities of Muslim women and men alike agree that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. However, majorities in many countries surveyed say a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil

In most countries where a question about so-called “honor” killings was asked, majorities of Muslims say such killings are never justified. In two countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – majorities condone extra-judicial executions of women who have allegedly shamed their families by engaging in premarital sex or adultery.

Morality. Muslims around the world overwhelmingly view certain behaviors as immoral, including prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, and consumption of alcohol. But the polling found that attitudes toward polygamy, divorce, and birth control are more varied.

Religion in politics. Most Muslims want to see the teachings of Islam shape their societies, but the percentage of Muslims who say they want sharia to be “the official law of the land” varies. That percentage is fewer than 1 in 10 in Azerbaijan, but is a solid majority in many nations from Africa to Asia. That includes 71 percent of Muslims in Nigeria, 72 percent in Indonesia, 74 percent in Egypt, and 99 percent in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the survey finds that even in many countries where there is strong backing for sharia, most Muslims favor religious freedom for people of other faiths. In Pakistan, for example, three-quarters of Muslims say that non-Muslims are very free to practice their religion, and fully 96 percent of those who share this assessment say it is “a good thing.”

That finding, repeated in other nations, is important as indicator of the potential for tolerance to coincide with the desire for religion to influence public life, the Pew Forum’s James Bell said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

And in many countries, a majority of Muslims say sharia law should not apply to people of other faiths. (But majorities in Egypt and Afghanistan say sharia should apply more widely, and Indonesia is divided down the middle on this issue.)

At least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they are concerned about religious extremist groups in their country. The worry is more about Islamic extremists than about Christian extremists.

Islam versus other faiths in US. Within the US, it’s possible to draw comparisons between some views of Muslims and the views of people of other faiths.

For example, US Muslims are generally less likely than the general US population to believe that many religions can lead to eternal life (56 vs. 70 percent).

But they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to viewing their religion as the one true faith. About 33 percent of US Muslims believe that, similar to historically black Protestant churches (34 percent) and evangelical Protestant churches (36 percent). A higher share of Mormons (56 percent) felt that way, while the level was lower for a number of other faiths. Sixteen percent of Roman Catholics, 12 percent of mainline Protestants, and 5 percent of Jews in the US saw their religion as the one true faith.

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