Last week, the first major survey of US Muslims revealed a surprisingly assimilated group. It's not easy researching this thin population slice (estimated at .8 percent), because the US Census doesn't track religion. Yet just as important as the survey results is the reaction from non-Muslims.
Some media commentary has accused the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study in four languages, of burying a troubling headline: 1 in 4 Muslims ages 18-29 lend some degree of support to suicide bombings to defend Islam.
The commentators blame political correctness for downplaying this finding while highlighting results that show most US Muslims are much like the middle-class mainstream.
But let's follow this criticism to its end. What if Americans were to concentrate on this youthful empathy for suicide bombing – which is a measure of attitude and not behavior – and repeat it as if it was the most important thing to know about the 2.4 million Muslims that Pew estimates live in the US?
First, it would make for a very lopsided picture. Most Muslims, it turns out, are "highly assimilated" with American society – this despite the fact that they're fairly recent arrivals, with 65 percent being foreign born. They're keen to fit in. Almost 80 percent of Muslims are US citizens, most say their largest proportion of friends is non-Muslim, and Muslims mirror the US population in both education and income.
Meanwhile, Muslims identify with their religion about the same as American Christians do theirs. Forty-seven percent of Muslims identify themselves as "Muslim first" (28 percent as "American first"); 42 percent of American Christians also state their faith first.
The finding that most Muslims are fitting in is not just some by-the-way bit of information or an obligatory bow to American inclusiveness. It's vital to national security.
The mainstreaming of US Muslims stands in sharp contrast to what's happening in Europe, where Muslims are often economically and socially ghettoized. Their alienation helps make them susceptible to extreme Islam and the lure of "home-grown" terrorism, as evidenced by the 2005 London bombings.
Playing up the fear and danger of young American Muslims as future suicide bombers risks alienating America's Muslims. It risks further prejudice when the majority of US Muslims say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the US since 9/11.
America needs its Muslims not just for the richness they bring, but also as allies in reporting and discouraging violent Islam. The survey found that 76 percent of US Muslims are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world – more than Muslims in many European and majority-Muslim countries. The last thing non-Muslims should do is stir up anti-Muslim sentiment and fear by parading one statistic on youths' attitude.
That's not to deny its importance, which should serve as a reminder to be alert. But Pew researchers say they don't know what lies behind it. Is it a factor of age, of outside influence, of Palestinian sympathy, of disenfranchised African-American Muslims – who make up 20 percent of the Muslim public?
The issue is ripe for more probing before non-Muslims sound the alarm. •