American Muslims: Attitudes

by David L. Johnston

An extensive Gallup Poll published in 2011 (download it here) reported that “though they continue to experience some perceived bias, both in their interactions with other Americans and in their exchanges with law enforcement, Muslim Americans are satisfied with their current lives and are more optimistic than other faith groups that things are getting better.”

Findings also show that they feel more confident about their financial situation; they have more faith than other religious groups in the integrity of American elections, though they are less likely to trust the military and the FBI – a fall-out, no doubt, of the “War on Terror.”

In this blog I offer a brief synopsis of this 132-page document, singling out what I’m guessing are some of its most startling findings. In a follow-up blog I’ll look at the challenges facing the Muslim-American community, as seen through the eyes of three prominent leaders.


The Gallup Poll’s most surprising findings

By “surprising” I only mean that it is likely to jolt what the average American thinks he or she knows about Muslims in the USA. Fair enough, it’s a human pastime and probably a needed psychological defense mechanism to pigeonhole people outside one’s own tribe. We all grow up categorizing and stereotyping others, or so we are told in any introductory sociology course.

That said, whatever the common impression Americans have of their fellow citizens who happen to be Muslims, it needs to be informed much more by personal relationships with actual Muslims and from dependable sources than from TV headline news!

This report is actually the product of three separate Gallup polling projects, the first being the most comprehensive – a joint effort to determine a well-being index for the US population (The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index) that involved making 1,000 nightly calls to Americans starting January 1, 2008. In about two and a half years over 800,000 Americans were consulted, and among these close to 4,000 self-identified as “Muslim-American.” And as a reminder, Gallup is the oldest and most reputable polling organization around.

So what were some of the most notable findings? I’ll single out three of them. First, Muslims, despite their great diversity, are generally well integrated in American society. Building on their 2009 report, the Foreword puts it this way:

“We discovered an educated, employed, entrepreneurial, and culturally diverse community, whose strengths and struggles reflected America’s as a whole. At the same time, our researchers found that young American Muslims, who had spent their formative years during the ‘war on terror,’ were less likely than their generational peers to be classified as thriving and more likely to experience negative emotions, such as anger” (p. 2).

So there was some unfinished business. Between 2009 and 2011 was there any measurable difference in the attitudes of the youth? Two years later, they had caught up in their “thriving index” with their 18-29 year-old counterparts in the Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish communities. Youth in all categories are consistently more positive and hopeful about the future than their elders.

Now just a note of caution when you look at poll figures for any religious community, but especially for Muslims in the US, since they are the religious group with the most diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds: Race, along with ethnicity and national background and culture, is a factor among all faith communities.

“For instance, Asian Muslims are easily the most likely in America to be thriving. Black Muslims report more financial hardship than do white Muslims, and black Muslims are somewhat less likely than other Muslims in the U.S. to be satisfied with their standard of living. Black Muslims are more likely than white or Asian Muslims to say they lack enough money to buy what they need or to make major purchases” (p. 16).

Yet, despite the fact that as a whole Muslims struggle financially more than other religious communities, they are more likely than others “to say that national economic conditions are good or excellent and that the economy is getting better” (p. 18).

The authors speculate that this optimism might be related to the fact that 46% of respondents identified with Democrats, 35% with Independents, and only 9% with Republicans. They tend to support President Obama’s policies.

The second noteworthy finding (but admittedly less surprising) is that American Muslims are the least civically engaged religious group. In particular, they have the lowest rate of registered voters (65% as opposed to 91% of Protestant or Jewish Americans).

The authors offer four possible reasons:

  1. They have the highest percentage of first-generation immigrants
  2. As a result, they are less established than others (they have been living here for an average of 10.5 years)
  3. It’s especially hard to mobilize US Muslims politically when 55% of the men and 42% of the women feel that there isn’t an organization that represents them. When asked, “Which Muslim-American, if any, most represents your interests,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) easily topped the list, but with only 12% votes for men and 11% for women. The largest organization came in a distant second position: the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) with 4% of men and 7% of women (my take here is that women tend to be more devout). And then third is the more secular Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), chosen by 6% of males and only 1% of females.
  4. Muslims are the youngest of any major religious community in the US (average of 36 years old) – “a demographic that tends to be less politically active across faith groups” (p. 26). Interestingly, Protestants are the oldest (55) and the “no-religion, agnostics or atheists” category is closest in age (41).

The third striking result of this poll is the affinity between American Muslims and Jews. On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think this paragraph is worth quoting in full:

“In roughly the same numbers, U.S. Muslims (81%) and Jews (78%) — two of the faith groups most closely associated with the Middle East’s enduring conflict — support a future in which an independent Palestinian state would coexist alongside of Israel. Catholic Americans (83%) also strongly support the two-state approach. U.S. Protestants are the least likely of the major religious groups surveyed to back a two-state solution. Protestant Americans’ relative resistance to a two state solution is significant because of the political influence wielded by this faith group, which represents a little more than one-half of the U.S. population.”

This surprising convergence of the two faith groups most involved in this conflict is a hopeful sign indeed. Let’s hope and pray that the current effort of the Obama administration to bring both sides together, obviously building on this fact, will finally achieve some tangible results. On the other hand, the point about the US Protestant community’s resistance to the two-state solution has one simple cause: Christian Zionism.

A final surprising area of convergence between Jews and Muslims in the US is their agreement about the loyalty of Muslims to their country and their strong opposition to terrorism. Let me offer some details.

Considering that Americans often, and very openly, believe that many US Muslims secretly support al-Qaeda and its ilk, the following comes as a surprise to many of us:

“To that end, it is worth noting that Muslim Americans are the least likely of all major religions in the U.S. to justify individuals or small groups attacking civilians. Eighty-nine percent of Muslim Americans say there is never a justification for such attacks, compared with 79% of Mormon Americans, 75% of Jewish Americans, and 71% of Protestant and Catholic Americans. Moreover, the frequency with which Muslim Americans — or any other faith group — attend religious services has no effect on whether they justify violence against civilians” (p. 31).

Keeping that fact in mind, American Jews are the least likely group to suspect American Muslims of sympathizing with al-Qaeda. Whereas 92% of Muslims themselves say that their Muslim compatriots have no sympathy for terrorists, American Jews come in at 70% on this question. By contrast, only 56% of Protestants and 63% of Catholics chose this answer. And even more telling, 33% of US Catholics and Protestants and 31% of Mormons feel there’s a possibility US Muslims harbor some sympathy for al-Qaeda.

Muslims are better assimilated in the United States than you might think. But of course, as American Jews have long learned, being “assimilated” can also mean, especially for the youth, a temptation to shed the distinctives not only of their family’s original culture, but also of their faith tradition. I’ll turn to some of those challenges in my next post.


More from Douglas Johnston can be found on his blog,