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A Closer Look at Recent Pew Study:
Mainstream Muslim Americans

June 5, 2007

The Pew Research Center released a poll study and analysis entitled “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” on Tuesday May 22, 2007. The study, analyzed by the Pew Research Center, finds Muslim American to be generally moderate and compatible with the general American population. The research reveals American Muslims to be a diverse population numbering over two million. This population estimate differs significantly from the standard estimate of six to seven million.

The Detroit News cited the study’s findings that “47 percent think of themselves as Muslims first, before they say they are Americans. That compares to 81 percent of British Muslims who say they are Muslim first and 66 percent of German Muslims and 69 percent of Spanish Muslims who see themselves as Muslim first.” The smaller percentage of American Muslims that identify themselves as “Muslim first” is somehow intended to indicate that they are more compatible with the American “Mainstream.” But why should this be a factor? How one primarily identifies oneself should be irrelevant. For example, to identify oneself as a feminist first and foremost and then an American is not problematic or even relevant. America is a pluralistic society that by definition welcomes diversity.

The Associated Press has stated that American Muslims “ a broad willingness to adopt American customs...” But what is not defined in both the AP analysis and the survey itself is what types of American customs we have in mind when discussing American Muslims. It would be one thing to expect American Muslims to take part in popular American holidays such as Valentine’s Day or Halloween, but it is quite another to expect American Muslims to strive towards being active citizens. Celebration of American holidays represents engagement in American culture but is merely a superficial representation of what it means to be an American. Becoming engaged in one’s community and a regular participant in elections are two defining factors that are far more significant to American citizenship. The study would have been more effective if these specifics were identified. Meaningful answers cannot be obtained until after these important qualifiers are in place.

Portrayal of American Muslims

Other areas in the survey itself lack necessary framing. Opinions on suicide bombing, for example, have become a primary point of interest. Those surveyed were asked “can suicide bombing of civilian targets to defend Islam be justified?” The answers reported were: often/sometimes 8%, rarely 5%, and never 78%. A 13% approval of civilian targets is alarming. However, the question does not supply support for the assumptions that will inevitably be made from the numbers. The poll results do not explain any motives behind the answers given (like desperate living conditions) or the conditions that would have been specified in conversation (such as exhausted alternatives). Furthermore, the study itself does not include comparable polled opinions of non-Muslims. The general American population would not be very supportive if asked about suicide bombing to defend Islam. Yet, if the question had been presented with the word “Islam” replaced by “Christianity,” “freedom,” or “America” the results would likely have been very similar to that of the Muslims surveyed. Unfortunately, a useful reference point is not provided. Conclusions are destined to remain vague notions without numbers relevant to non-Muslims that might supply a comparison be made between the two.

The general trend of the American media in its coverage of Islam and Muslims has not been to represent Muslims as they see themselves or their faith. More often, Muslims are represented inaccurately, as “the other,” and not as a part of American society. An example of this is found in the Pew’s own analysis of its survey where it incorrectly defines a “traditional” or conservative perspective to include the belief that the Qur’an is the word of God. This implication is incorrect. In comparing Islam to Christianity, which the Pew survey has done for this question, the Qur’an is likely to be equated as a sort of Bible for Muslims. This notion would be misleading. While each book does serve as its religions’ holy book, there is a fundamental difference between the two. The Qur’an is not believed to be a work inspired by those who have been close with God, but rather the direct word of God. To accept that the Qur’an is God’s word is an essential part of Islamic belief and is not to be confused with a conservative position. Elsewhere, the Pew analysis is more accurate in its assessment of conservative Muslims. Specifically, its categorization of “literal interpretation” under a conservative position is more accurate.

Although there are points worthy of detailed critique, overall the Pew survey reflects the fact that Muslim Americans are not as much of “the other” as the general American population may have been inclined to believe. Muslim Americans strive towards the American dream alongside their fellow citizens. The immigrant members of the American Muslim population came to America with the same dreams and aspirations as the millions of others who have uprooted themselves to create a home inside of America’s borders. Muslim Americans overall should not be feared or categorized outside of societal norms. However, the media has made it rather difficult to perceive Muslims as fellow humans. Through ignoring the moderate Muslim voice while disportionately magnifying the voice and actions of Islamic fundamentalists, the media has provided the public with the skewed understanding that most Muslims support fundamentalism. Until this is corrected, the American public will continue to be surprised and skeptical upon learning the truth that Muslims are not only compatible with the American mainstream but are already a part of it.


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