How US Muslims are different: Pew poll sheds light on global contrasts

A smaller share of Muslims in the US as compared with those worldwide say all their friends are Muslims, according to a new Pew poll. Survey questions about violence produce some variations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/staff
A Muslim teenage girl wearing a head scarf draws in New York's Central Park last month. Muslims in the United States have views on religion that are different, in many ways, from the views of Muslims in other nations.

Muslims in the United States have views on religion that are different, in many ways, from the views of Muslims in other nations.

Consider some intriguing contrasts, contained in a poll released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

• Some 48 percent of Muslims in America say most or all of their close friends are Muslim, compared with a 95 percent global median level, among 39 nations encompassed by the Pew Forum’s survey.

• Nearly two-thirds of US Muslims, 63 percent, say there is no inherent tension between being devout and living in a modern society. A nearly identical proportion of American Christians, 64 percent, feel that way. But fewer Muslims around the world share that view (the median in the Pew survey was 54 percent) – even though the US is more “modern” in many ways than other nations in the survey, which span from Nigeria to Indonesia.

• 56 percent of US Muslims agree with the view that many religions can lead to heaven. That’s closer to the US average of 70 percent than it is to Islam globally, which had an 18 percent median in the Pew survey.

• On the question of whether attacks, such as suicide bombings, on civilians are ever justified in defense of Islam, Muslims in America are strongly on the less-violent end of the global spectrum. In the US, 81 percent of Muslims say such violence is never justified, a slightly higher share than the survey’s global median of 72 percent.

About 1 percent of US Muslims say violence is “often” justified, versus 3 percent globally. Although there is general disapproval of violence, a few nations such as Afghanistan and Egypt have much larger than average numbers – 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively – who view attacks against civilians as often or sometimes justified.

“There's something about US Muslims that is distinctive,” says James Bell, who helped direct the global polling effort that took five years and 38,000 interviews to complete.

That’s the case even though most Muslims in the US were born in other nations, the Pew researchers say.

“In their attitudes toward modern society and their relations with people of other faiths, U.S. Muslims sometimes more closely resemble other Americans than they do Muslims around the world,” the new report says.

The report on Muslim attitudes around the world comes as America is grappling with a tragic Boston Marathon bombings, which appear to have been motivated in part by the perpetrators’ affiliation with an ideology of violent jihad.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers suspected of setting the blasts, was quoted in 2010 as saying, “I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them.” In captions to a photo essay about him as an aspiring boxer, he also worried out loud that "there are no values anymore" and that "people can't control themselves.”

Since the April 15 bomb attack, many Muslim Americans have spoken out to condemn the bombings, and many have also felt frustrated that such events can erase hard-won public trust.

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