Survey: Muslim Americans happier with conditions in US than broader public

The new Pew survey was sparked, in part, by a desire to know whether recent concerns about home-grown terrorism had led to increased alienation among Muslim Americans and support for extremism.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Prayers commenced before the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in New York City on Aug. 19, 2010.

For the most part, Muslim Americans disavow Islamic extremism, are happy with the way things are going in the country and in their lives, and are about as religious and educated as the general American public.

Those are a few of the lessons from a new report from the Pew Research Center that surveyed Muslim Americans and paints a detailed portrait of their demographics, experiences, opinions, and perceptions.

Pew’s last survey of this group was in 2007, and the current one was sparked, in part, by a desire to know whether recent concerns about home-grown terrorism and other pressures had led to increased alienation and anger among Muslim Americans and support for extremism, says Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research and a coauthor of the study.

The result, he says, was the opposite. “There’s been no increase in favorable views of Al Qaeda, of suicide bombing, or Islamic extremism,” he says. And, “while a lot of Muslim Americans acknowledged that life is difficult and that they continue to face discrimination, they do not regard the American people as particularly unfriendly to them.”

In fact, Muslims surveyed for the report were happier with conditions in the United States than the broader American population. Some 56 percent of Muslims are satisfied with the way things are going in this country, compared with 23 percent of the general public. In 2007, those numbers were 38 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Similarly, Muslim Americans are far more satisfied with President Obama’s performance (76 percent) than the public at large (46 percent). In 2007, just 15 percent of Muslim Americans approved of President Bush’s performance. Moreover, 82 percent of Muslim Americans say they are happy with the way things are going in their own lives.

That overall satisfaction, says Mr. Keeter, “suggests many [Muslim Americans] may be defining their satisfaction with national conditions around the political leadership of the country rather than anything to do with economic conditions. And they’re as satisfied with Obama as president as they were dissatisfied with President Bush.”

The survey substantially probed Muslim Americans' feelings about terrorism, Islamic extremism, and Al Qaeda, with somewhat mixed findings.

Just 1 percent of American Muslims say that suicide bombing is often justified – with an additional 7 percent saying it is sometimes justified. And just 5 percent say they have a somewhat favorable opinion of Al Qaeda (with 70 percent saying they have a very negative opinion). That is far less support than either suicide bombing or Al Qaeda gets among Muslim communities in other parts of the world.

Still, a sizable percentage (21 percent) say there is at least a fair amount of support for extremism among Muslims in the US (compared with 40 percent of the general public), and 60 percent say they are at least somewhat concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the US, even though just 4 percent think that Muslim support for extremism is on the rise.

There are also disparities within the American Muslim community, with more native-born Muslims seeing support for Islamic extremism than foreign-born Muslims, for example. Native-born African-American Muslims are the least likely to say they have a very unfavorable view of Al Qaeda (56 percent, compared with 75 percent of foreign-born Muslims), but that number has increased from 2007, when just 39 percent of African-American Muslims had a very negative opinion of Al Qaeda.

“There are some unusual patterns in the data that suggest there is some concern among certain segments of the Muslim community about extremism, but it’s hard to know what the source of that is,” Keeter says. It’s not clear, for instance, whether those who say there is some support for extremism actually know people who hold those views or just hold vague perceptions.

Those surveyed also indicated that Muslim leaders in the US need to take a firmer stand in speaking out against extremism. Only a third of Muslim Americans say their leaders have spoken out enough, and nearly half say US Muslim leaders need to challenge extremists more.

The survey showed no increase in harassment or feelings of persecution since 2007, though a majority (55 percent) still say that being a Muslim in the US has gotten tougher since 9/11. A significant number of minorities say they have been looked at with suspicion (28 percent), been called offensive names (22 percent), and been singled out by airport security (21 percent).

The report gave particular attention to the controversy surrounding the mosque near ground zero. Although the clear majority (72 percent) of those aware of the controversy thought the mosque should be allowed, more than a third either believed it shouldn’t be allowed, or said it should be allowed but was a bad idea.

“This is a sensitive issue,” says Keeter, noting that considerable numbers of American Muslims say they have firsthand experience with vandalism or other controversies around mosques in their own communities.

The survey also tried to detail basic demographic data about the Muslim community in the US, including racial data, education and income levels, and household makeup, particularly since the US Census doesn’t ask about religious affiliation. Based on Pew’s estimates, there are about 1.8 million Muslim adults and 2.75 million Muslims of all ages living in the US today. Of those 18 and older, nearly two-thirds were born abroad, and 25 percent have arrived in the US since 2000.

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