Middle Class, Mainstream, Murderous?

What the polls tell us about American Muslims


Does a new poll of American Muslims show a community remarkably integrated into mainstream American society and supportive of American values—or a community in which the radical fringe is frighteningly large? Is there cause for alarm about the level of sympathy for terrorism among Muslims in the U.S.? This has been the subject of heated debate among the commentariat since the Pew Research Center released its new study, "Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream," on May 22.

The single most widely reported finding in the study had to do with attitudes toward suicide bombings. Asked if suicide bombings of civilians in defense of Islam were justified, five percent replied "rarely," seven percent "sometimes," and one percent, "often." Perhaps even more alarming, support for suicide bombings was higher among younger Muslims, over a quarter of whom felt that suicide bombings against civilians could at least sometimes or rarely be justified. While this is lower than comparable figures in several European countries with large Muslim populations, that's a slim reassurance at best.

In addition, five percent of all Muslims said they had a favorable view of the Al Qaeda, while 10 percent picked only "somewhat" unfavorable and 27 percent refused to answer or said they didn't know. Once again, extremist views were more common among the young.

Many on the right treated the poll as evidence of a significant threat of "homegrown jihad." Michelle Malkin wrote that it was a frightening "wake-up call." The blogger Ace of Spades took the media to task for their largely positive spin on the study, lambasting newspapers which stressed the fact that most Muslims in the study were seeking assimilation rather than "the 26% of young American Muslim males who would like to kill Americans."

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald, who now blogs at Salon.com, turned his anger on "right-wing war proponents" who "frantically search every news story for any possible angle to seize in order to exploit anti-Muslim hysteria."

In some cases, that description fits. Some may remember an attempt by Malkin and several other conservative bloggers, in October 2005, to portray the suicide of a disturbed young man who blew himself up with a homemade bomb on the Oklahoma University campus as a botched terrorist act by a Muslim convert. More recently, anti-Muslim hysteria queen Debbie Schlussel tried to find a Muslim angle in Cho Seung-Hui's shooting rampage on the Virginia Tech campus.

However, you don't have to look particularly hard to find a cause for alarm in a poll in which a quarter of Muslim men under 30 think terrorism in defense of Islam is justified on at least some occasions—even if it's a bit of a stretch to say that all who picked this option "would like to kill Americans." (Many may have been thinking primarily of Palestinian terrorism in Israel, which they may regard as a war of liberation.) Other poll results suggest that, while a majority American Muslims are concerned about the growth of Islamic extremism around the world, they are also inclined to downplay its connection to terrorism. Thus, only 40 percent of the respondents said they believed the September 11 attacks were carried out by a group of Arabs.

A further layer of nuance is added by the fact that in some ways, native-born African-American Muslims are more radicalized than Muslim immigrants. They are the only group of American Muslims in which only a minority—36 percent, compared to 60 percent among foreign-born Arab-Americans—hold a "very unfavorable" view of the Al Qaeda. They are also the most likely to oppose U.S. military action in Afghanistan after September 11. Thus, some of the attitudes identified as Muslim extremism may be less an issue of religion than of disaffected minorities embracing Islam—especially its Nation of Islam variety—as a form of rebellion.

The study also had encouraging findings. Compared to Muslims in Western Europe, American Muslims are far less likely to be poor; they also less likely to view themselves as Muslims first and citizens of their country second. Over 70 percent of U.S. Muslims agree that in America, one can get ahead with hard work. Nonetheless, the revelation that a sizable minority of young Muslims has some terrorist sympathies will inevitably be viewed as justifying suspicion.

Greenwald tries to counterbalance this with a reminder that many white, Christian Americans hold some reprehensible attitudes as well—for instance, 12 percent say they would refuse to vote for a qualified presidential candidate if he was black. Yet deplorable though such prejudice may be, it is not quite on a par with beliefs that support deadly violence. If 12 percent of white Americans said that terrorist attacks on blacks were sometimes justified in defense of the white race, such a finding would be widely and rightly seen as a frightening wake-up call about the growth of virulent racism.

Some of the other data cited by Greenwald are, in fact, quite disturbing: in a 2005 Pew poll, when Americans were asked whether "the use of torture against suspected terrorists to gain important information" is ever justified, 15 percent said "often," 31 percent "sometimes," and 17 percent "rarely." (Only a third said "never.") Such widespread support for torture, even against those only suspected of being terrorists, attests to the extent to which fear of terrorism has warped our values. But one can be alarmed both by mainstream America's support for torture and by terrorist sympathies among young American Muslims. This is a classic example of "two wrongs don't make a right."

Does this mean that every young Muslim should be viewed as a potential terrorist? Or that every outburst of random violence should be treated as an act of jihadism until proven otherwise? Of course not. However, it does mean that there is a serious problem in the Muslim community, and one that those concerned with anti-Muslim bigotry need to take seriously.

Cathy Young is a reason contributing editor.

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