America's Muslims: Mainstream and middle class
Ten years after the triple attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Muslim population is thriving. Their presence and success are vastly underreported. Instead, headlines draw attention to homegrown terrorists, protests against mosque construction, the controversial hearings of Representative Peter King and disputes over Homeland Security’s ratings of domestic terrorism threats. But in the aftermath of 9/11, American Muslims are well integrated into American society and prospering. Two-thirds of Muslim households earn over $50,000 a year and a quarter of those over $100,000. Two-thirds of Muslims hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just 44 percent of Americans overall.
Today the American Muslim population numbers perhaps 4.5 million. (The exact total is hard to determine because the U.S. Census does not inquire about religious affiliation.) Of these, half identify themselves as Sunni; 16 percent as Shiite. Sixty-five percent of American Muslims are foreign- born, and 39 percent have come since 1990.
Like Christian immigrants before them, Muslims organize to build community centers and mosques to educate their children, maintain their faith and foster community adhesion. These institutions also draw non-practicing Muslims. Islamic centers do form loose affiliations with groups like the Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Circle of North America, American Muslim Alliance, Muslim Public Affairs Council or Council on American-Islamic Relations, though according to a poll released in August by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center no more than 10 percent of American Muslims regarded any of these groups as representative. While they prize their local autonomy in American society, American Muslims also typically maintain spiritual connections with religious leadership abroad and in traditionally Islamic lands.
Muslims are integrated into the American mainstream. According to the Gallup poll “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future,” Muslims more than other U.S. religious groups regard themselves as “thriving.” In earlier studies they expressed as much satisfaction with the state of the nation as did other Americans. With the exception of recent immigrants, Muslims identify non-Muslims as their closest friends. Like other Americans, they reject extremism; but a little more than a third worry about the growth of Islamic extremism in America. Muslims support adaptation to American society over religious separatism. Two-thirds find no conflict between being a Muslim and a participant in modern society. Furthermore, 62 percent regard the condition of women in the United States favorably.
Religious Practice and Politics
American Muslims are more likely to regard religion as “very important” to their identity than are other Americans (72 percent versus 60 percent), but their practice of daily prayer and weekly worship is somewhat weaker than that of Christians (daily prayer—61 percent versus 70 percent; communal worship—40 percent versus 45 percent). More Christians than Muslims, however, are of the opinion that their religious institutions should express views about political and social issues.
The growing number of native-born American Muslims are the offspring of Muslim immigrants, African-Americans and converts from a variety of backgrounds. Nearly 60 percent of converts are African-American; 34 percent are white. Converts are typically young, with almost half converting before age 21 and another third before age 35. The first- and second-generation children of Muslim- Americans assimilate into American culture, attitudes and interests, as the tens of millions of other immigrant children in the history of the American republic have done.
In the Gallup poll, American Muslims are more likely than any other religious group to say that violent attacks on civilians are never justified. Support for extremism is much weaker among American Muslims than among their continental European counterparts. More than half of U.S. Muslims express concern about Islamic extremism as compared with just 35 percent in France and 29 percent in Germany and Spain. Although younger American Muslims are more likely than others to regard suicide bombing as justifiable, the survey reports that 78 percent of Muslim Americans say attacks against civilians are “never justified,” in contrast to a majority of American Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Mormons who hold such attacks as “sometimes justifiable.”
Following 9/11 American Muslims were critical of American foreign policy, as they were of American Middle East policy for decades before. Only 26 percent see the war on terror as “a sincere effort to reduce terrorism,” and 75 percent oppose the war in Iraq compared with 47 percent of the general U.S. population. Only 48 percent regard the war in Afghanistan as “the wrong decision,” however, with as many as 35 percent believing it was “the right decision.” Nearly 70 percent hold an unfavorable attitude toward Al Qaeda, and only 5 percent report favorable attitudes toward it.
Prejudice and Discrimination
Despite the assimilation of the vast majority of Muslims in the United States, attitudes toward Muslims and Islam on the part of the general American population are not positive. A slight majority of Americans (53 percent) hold negative attitudes toward Muslims, with some 31 percent reporting attitudes “not favorable at all.” Yet nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have little or no knowledge of Islam. Those admittedly ignorant of Islam are more than twice as likely to have negative attitudes toward Muslims as toward adherents of other religions. Repugnance toward Islam, however, is greater than aversion to Muslims themselves; 43 percent of Americans report feeling prejudice against Muslims. Ironically, most Americans regard Muslims as unaccepting of people of other faiths. Even so, a large majority (70 percent) believe Muslims want peace.
The August Gallup poll indicates that 48 percent of Muslim Americans report experiencing either “racial or religious” discrimination in the last year. Earlier reports indicated that a much smaller number experienced “religious” discrimination. Among those reporting recent discrimination, native-born Muslims, particularly African Americans, outnumber the foreign-born by more than 2 to 1. The impact of 9/11 and the war on terror on perceptions of discrimination, however, are noticeable. A small majority declare it is more difficult being a Muslim in the United States since 9/11 and believe they have been singled out as Muslims for scrutiny by government security programs. Among those with advanced degrees and of higher income levels, two-thirds say it has been harder to be a Muslim since 9/11.
In the United States a large percentage of the population attends religious services regularly and an even larger percentage self-identifies as religious. Because the nation’s founders did not want the history of strife among Protestant groups to repeat itself in their new republic, they wrote into the Bill of Rights two expressions that formed the basis for religious pluralism: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Over time a variety of religions flourished because of the equality of religious groups before the law.
Two other key conditions favorable to the growth of Christian-Muslim relations date from 1965. First, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened U.S. borders to new immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, which provided opportunities for dialogue between American Christians and Muslim immigrants. Contact with foreign-born Muslims also persuaded many African-American Muslims to conform to religious belief and practice more like that of Muslims abroad.
Second, on Oct. 28 that year, Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the Second Vatican Council promulgated “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration on interreligious relations. Begun as an effort to reverse negative church teaching about Jews, “Nostra Aetate” affirmed the church’s respect for the other world religions as well. It offered reasons for the church’s “esteem” for Muslims and urged all “to make sincere efforts” for mutual understanding and cooperation.
In 1965 most people in the United States had never met a Muslim, though from the media they knew about “Black Muslims,” members of the Nation of Islam, an African-American organization working for civil rights. In sharp contrast to the nonviolent character of the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam took a confrontational, anti-white approach to its mission. That winter, Malcolm X, one of the best-known black Muslims, was assassinated because he came to believe that the Nation of Islam’s teachings on hate and violence were contrary to authentic Islam. Interestingly, the latest Gallup poll shows American Jews least suspicious of American Muslims, with 80 percent believing American Muslims are loyal to the United States and 66 percent believing they face prejudice.
World events after 1965—the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Yom Kippur War of 1970 and the Arab oil embargo, the terrorism linked to Muammar el-Qaddafi and the 1979 Iranian Revolution—complicated American attitudes toward Muslims. Still, by the mid-1980s successful Catholic-Muslim dialogues had been taking place in Los Angeles for 10 years, and similar efforts occurred regularly in Detroit, Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Buffalo and New York. In 1986 the U.S. Catholic bishops finally voted to fund staff and interreligious programming to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue, and a national dialogue of Catholics and Muslims took place in 1991 and 1992.
Interfaith Relations after 9/11
The U.S. Catholic bishops inaugurated annual dialogues in several regions, beginning in 1996 in the Midwest with the Islamic Society of North America, in 1998 on the East Coast with the Islamic Circle of North America and in 2000 on the West Coast. Participants met in a retreat environment for two days. The purpose was to connect with both national and local Islamic leadership and thereby engage the diversity of the Muslim population. In a separate initiative, African-American Muslims under the leadership of Warith Deen Muhammad began meeting with Catholic leadership. These meetings led to a visit to Rome by Imam Muhammad in 1996 and many informal relationships. These dialogues and relationships continue today.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Catholic leadership already enjoyed a degree of trust and mutuality with Muslim leadership in the United States. That very week the bishops’ national inter-religious moderator, Bishop Tod Brown of Orange, Calif., signed a statement with five Muslim leaders involved in these relationships. The signers declared their commitment to one another as friends, believers and citizens; their abhorrence of all terrorist acts and hate crimes; and the immorality of the crimes of 9/11. At its next meeting each U.S.C.C.B. regional dialogue discussed the nexus of religion and violence.
No doubt complex layers of relationship, joint decision-making, trust and goodwill served many religious communities in the United States, especially Muslims, in the weeks after 9/11. The next year, the bishops’ conference sponsored an institute on Islam and Catholic-Muslim relations, and the bishops’ Subcommittee on Interreligious Dialogue received a grant from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to offer three short institutes for bishops on Islam and Catholic-Muslim relations. Nowadays, there are numerous summer institutes and special workshops on Christian-Muslim relations geared for teachers, church staff, reporters and others. Georgetown University, the site of the third bishops’ institute in 2005, has offered a weeklong institute for Christian and Muslim leaders every summer since that year.
When 138 Muslim religious leaders and scholars released “A Common Word Between Us and You” in October 2007 to Christian leaders everywhere, a degree of reciprocity was reached in the promotion of relations. This short reflection, drawing from biblical and Koranic sources on love of God and neighbor as a basis for dialogue, represented the first broadly based theological response by Muslims to the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate.”
Setbacks came in the summer of 2010. A proposed Islamic center for lower Manhattan gave rise to angry protests and drew in national political leaders. Similarly, when a pastor on Staten Island agreed to sell a former convent to a Muslim group for a mosque, there were outcries. For New Yorkers, these incidents demonstrated the insufficient attention by civic and religious leaders to public and private healing after 9/11, particularly among the families of first responders, many of whom lived on Staten Island. For all Americans, lower Manhattan and ground zero had become a stage on which to vent suspicions and stereotypes of Muslims and their religion. Controversies over the construction of a mosque and an Islamic center erupted in Tennessee and Iowa.
Then the pastor of a tiny congregation-cum-business in Gainesville, Fla., drew stern comments from some of the highest political and military offices in the land, and from fellow evangelicals, over his plan to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. This year more than two dozen states have considered “anti-Shariah” legislation, whereby Islamic law can never have standing in state courts; three states have passed such a ban. A recent exposé in The New York Times found that a Hasidic lawyer from Brooklyn, N.Y., has orchestrated this movement with conservative public policy institutes.
Meanwhile, Christians continue to engage in local initiatives with Muslims to promote social justice, community-building, dialogue and faith-sharing. Muslims have begun to teach Islam and religious studies even at Catholic colleges and universities. Muslim social commentators have moved well beyond political analysis of the West and Islam. With a stake in American social, economic, religious and political institutions, Muslims are moving into positions of civic leadership.
The economic downturn and costly settlements in cases of abuse have caused the U.S. Catholic bishops to cut back their programs of social cooperation and inter-religious dialogue. As a result, local communities and interfaith councils receive less expert assistance. Ten years ago, help from national offices provided guidance and expertise in shaping initiatives for mutual understanding and cooperation. Ten years after 9/11, with interfaith engagement so widespread, no single national dialogue, relationship or program sets the tone for Christian-Muslim relations in American life.
Public opinion data is taken from the Pew Research Center’s (Muslim West Facts Project) “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” (2007) and the Gallup/Co-exist Foundation survey “Religious Perspectives in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes toward Muslims and Islam” (2009) and other sources. The latest findings come from Gallup’s 2011 survey, “Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future,” which was released as this article went to press.