Muslim Americans: In Pursuit Of Justice

From attempts at building an Islamic cultural center near ground zero to hearings held about "home -grown terrorism" on Capitol Hill by New York Rep. Peter King, the nation is constantly exposed to the ongoing conversation about Muslims in America. Too often, these specific events -- while significant -- do not give us a complete picture of the American landscape of public opinion regarding fellow Americans who happen to practice the faith of Islam. Today, the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center and the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies released the most authoritative public opinion study of Muslim Americans to date. "Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom, and the Future" provides an unprecedented look at the complexity of the Muslim experience in American public life and offers a view into the perceptions of various members of American faith groups toward their Muslim neighbors.

Condemning Violence

One of the major obstacles to Muslim-American integration has been the perception that Muslims are not doing enough to condemn violence committed by fellow Muslims. Among all major religious groups, a significant majority (62 percent to 68 percent) believe that Muslims do not speak out enough against terrorism, with 28 percent of Muslim Americans in agreement. This remains the leading critique of Muslim-American organizations that attempt to speak on behalf of Muslims. The truth, however, is that their condemnations, particularly since 9/11, have been consistent and plentiful on the websites of every mainstream, and some not-so-mainstream, Muslim organization across the country. The challenge appears to be an inability to translate this considerable energy into wider recognition that Muslim organizations -- and ordinary Muslims -- do condemn violence. It is possible that Muslim-American organizations rely too heavily on websites and email lists to speak out against terrorism. Such electronic methods are immediate, easy, and inexpensive to use, yet they tend to be homogenous and thus tend to end up "preaching to the choir." The websites where condemnations are posted are generally of most interest to U.S. Muslims and may not be seen by a wider audience.

There is still a public perception that Muslim Americans condone violence, which leads to the general perception of a lack of condemnation. Muslim Americans, according to Gallup polling conducted Feb. 10-March 11, 2010, and Oct. 1-21, 2010, are the most likely major faith group in the U.S. to reject violent attacks on civilians by individuals (89 percent vs. 79 percent or less among other major U.S. religious groups) as well as by the military (78 percent vs. 64 percent or less among other major U.S. religious groups). Ninety-two percent of Muslim Americans believe that Muslims living in this country have no sympathy for al Qaeda and 70 percent of Jewish Americans agree with their assessment. Yet there is still a significant portion of the American public that views Muslims through a lens of distrust.

Loyalty to America

When it comes to whether Muslim Americans are loyal to their country, there is a clear gap in perception between how Muslim Americans see themselves and how their fellow Americans of other faith groups see them. This unnecessarily exacerbates the barriers Muslim Americans face to fully integrate into the broader American fabric.

Thirty-seven percent of Protestants, 35 percent of Catholics, and 32 percent of Mormons say Muslim Americans are not loyal to America while 80 percent of Jewish Americans say that they are. But when Muslim Americans are asked about their identities, they are as likely to identify strongly with the U.S. (69 percent) as they are with their faith (65 percent). Thus, it turns out that these two identities, which some see as a barrier to full allegiance to the U.S., are actually held equally and inform the fidelity Muslim Americans have to U.S. institutions. Specifically, Muslim Americans have the highest level of confidence of any major U.S. religious group in the honesty of elections in the U.S., and they are as likely as members of other religious groups to have confidence in the judicial system and the honesty of the media.

View of Politics

The release of this report also highlights our understanding of the view Muslim Americans have of the current political dynamics on a national level in the U.S. Muslim Americans currently have the highest approval rating of President Barack Obama's job performance (80 percent) among all major religious groups in the country, representing a 73-percentage-point increase when compared with their assessment of former President George W. Bush (7 percent) when polled in 2008. They are also the religious group in America with the highest levels of opposition to some of the current military conflicts in which the U.S. is engaged. For example, 83 percent of Muslim Americans and 74 percent of Jewish Americans say that the Iraq war was mistake. This will likely inform how Muslims will vote in the upcoming election cycle as Muslim Americans continue to increase in their political engagement and participation.

Despite high approval of the current president, Muslim Americans have the lowest level of confidence in the FBI among all religious groups surveyed. This is likely not surprising if one examines the frequent interactions between national Muslim American institutions and federal law enforcement agencies for the last decade. What might be surprising, however, is the level of interest in profiling in America. A significant minority of Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish Americans (35 percent to 40 percent) believe it is possible to profile a terrorist and that law enforcement should watch individuals fitting the profile more. Six percent of Muslim Americans polled agree with the efficacy of such profiling.

Sixty percent of Muslim Americans say they face prejudice from most Americans, and 66 percent of Jewish Americans agree that most Americans harbor prejudice against Muslim Americans. When attempting to understand the difference between perceiving prejudice and experiencing discrimination, 48 percent of Muslim Americans polled say they faced racial or religious discrimination in the last year. Reading the 2008 study "Muslim Americans: A National Portrait" is informative when probing discrimination and prejudice. Muslim Americans are the only religious group in the country that does not have a racial or ethnic majority, therefore reflecting the general realities of race in America.

Despite having the highest levels of confidence in the honesty of elections among any major religious group in the U.S., Muslim Americans are the least likely to be registered to vote. Even when thinking about their own community-based organizations with a national footprint, 55 percent of Muslim American men and 42 percent of Muslim American women say that no national Muslim organization represents their interests. Based on the polling, the most famous and largest Muslim American institutions have yet to reach national levels of recognition. Attaining such name recognition would give them the communal allegiance mosques achieve by performing local services; allegiance that results in high community engagement. Twenty-three percent of Muslim Americans say the Council on American Islamic Relations, 11 percent say the Islamic Society of North America, and 7 percent say the Muslim Public Affairs Council represents their interests. That means the three big institutions are only getting 41 percent of Muslim Americans to say that they speak on their behalf. There is a link, however, between attending a religious institution regularly and being politically active and engaged.

Muslim Americans who report attending a religious service at least weekly are more likely to be classified as "politically active" (40 percent) than those who report seldom religious attendance (22 percent). Although this might serve as solace for those trying to organize within the Muslim-American community, it should be noted that the average age of a Muslim American is 36 compared with 46-55 years among all other major religious groups. That means that unless national organizations and places of worship begin to focus their initiatives and resources on capturing this market -- the numbers for attendance, as well as political participation, will decrease.

The Road Ahead

Last week, the Muslim Public Affairs Council issued a press release announcing that President Obama called the head of its Washington, D.C., office to congratulate the organization on its work with young Muslim Americans and its service to the nation. Although this too is another anecdote in the noise surrounding Muslims Americans -- it is hard to imagine that such recognition for the Muslim-American community is not fuel for progress on the tough task of pursuing their place in America. When compared with their counterparts in American history, this too is a community in America, one among many, in pursuit of justice.

Ahmed Younis is a Senior Consultant at Gallup and a Senior Analyst of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. He also serves as a Senior Analyst at the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, a research hub based in the capital of the United Arab Emirates. He is the author of American Muslims: Voir Dire [Speak the Truth], a post-Sept. 11 look at the reality of debate surrounding American Muslims and their country.