Recent events such as the Fort Hood shootings and the arrest of five Muslim American students in Pakistan have raised questions about the threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States. However, the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive portrait of the Muslim American population suggests it is less likely to be a fertile breeding ground for terrorism than Muslim minority communities in other countries. Violent jihad is discordant with the values, outlook and attitudes of the vast majority of Muslim Americans, most of whom reject extremism.
A Middle Class, Mainstream Minority Group
As the title of Pew Research’s 2007 study suggests, Muslim Americans are “middle class and mostly mainstream.” Compared with their co-religionists in other Western societies, they are relatively well integrated into mainstream society. Unlike Western Europe’s Muslim populations, Muslims in the U.S. are generally as well-educated and financially well-off as the general population. Most (72%) say their communities are good or excellent places to live, and most believe in the American dream — 71% say that in the U.S., most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.
When asked whether they think of themselves first as an American or as a Muslim, 47% of Muslims in the U.S. think of themselves first in terms of their religion, while 28% identify themselves first as Americans and 18% volunteer that they identify as both. At 46%, French Muslims are about equally as likely as those in the U.S. to think of themselves first as Muslim. However, Muslim Americans are less likely to identify primarily with their religion than are Muslims living in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
Primary identification with religious affiliation is not unique to Muslims. Religious identity is almost equally as high among American Christians, 42% of whom say they think of themselves first as Christian. About half (48%) of Christians in the U.S. identify first as Americans, while 7% volunteer that they identify both with their nationality and their religion.1
Roughly six-in-ten Muslim Americans (62%) say that the quality of life for Muslim women in the U.S. is better than the quality of life for women in most Muslim countries, while 7% say it is worse, and 23% believe it is about the same. French Muslims are equally likely to think that life is better for Muslim women in their country, while in Britain, Germany and Spain, Muslims are somewhat less likely to hold this view.
Many Muslim Americans share the concerns of the broader population about Islamic extremism. Roughly three-quarters (76%) are very or somewhat concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, compared with 81% of the U.S. general population.2 About six-in-ten Muslim Americans (61%) are also worried about the potential rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S., although this is lower than the level of concern among the general public (78%).3
Few Endorse Extremism
Very few Muslim Americans hold a positive opinion of al Qaeda — only 5% give the terrorist organization a favorable rating, while 68% express an unfavorable view, including 58% who describe their view as very unfavorable. About one-quarter (27%) decline to offer an opinion.
Support for suicide terrorism among Muslim Americans is similarly rare: 78% believe that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets to defend Islam from its enemies can never be justified, and another 5% say these types of attacks are rarely justified. Fewer than one-in-ten American Muslims say that suicide bombing is sometimes (7%) or often (1%) justified.
Over the course of the decade, the Pew Global Attitudes Project has asked this same question of Muslim populations around the world, and results show that Muslims in the U.S. are among the most likely to reject suicide bombing. Among the populations surveyed recently, opposition to suicide bombing is highest in Pakistan (87% say it is never justified) — a nation currently plagued by suicide bombings and violence by extremist groups. As recently as 2004, only 35% of Pakistani Muslims held this view. As Pew Global Attitudes surveys have documented, the growing rejection of extremism in Pakistan is part of a broader pattern in the Muslim world.
Most European Muslims surveyed agree that suicide attacks can never be justified. This view is especially prevalent in Germany, where 83% of the country’s largely Turkish Muslim community say that suicide attacks are not justifiable. Most Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia, Jordan, Israel and Egypt agree, while fewer than half take this position in Lebanon and Nigeria. Palestinians are the clear outlier on this issue — only 17% think violence against civilian targets can never be justified.
But Small Pockets of Support and Doubts About Sept. 11
Of course, although American Muslims largely reject extremist ideologies, results from the 2007 survey do reveal small pockets of support for extremism. And the survey found that younger Muslims in the U.S. are slightly more accepting of Islamic extremism than are older Muslims. Those under age 30 are more than twice as likely as those age 30 and older to believe that suicide bombings in the defense of Islam can often or sometimes be justified (15% vs. 6%). This pattern is consistent with findings from Europe — Muslims under age 30 in Britain, France, Germany and Spain are slightly more likely than those in older age groups to endorse suicide attacks.
The survey also finds that native-born African-American Muslims are less likely than other U.S. Muslims to condemn al Qaeda completely. Only 9% express a favorable view of the organization, but at the same time, just 36% give it a very unfavorable rating.
And fewer than half of Muslim Americans — just four-in-10 — accept the fact that groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Roughly a third (32%) express no opinion as to who was behind the attacks, while 28% flatly disbelieve that Arabs conducted the attacks. Fewer highly religious Muslim Americans believe that groups of Arabs carried out the attacks than do less religious Muslims. The survey also finds that those who say suicide bombings in defense of Islam can often or sometimes be justified are more disbelieving than others that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
This analysis was written by Richard Wike, Pew Global Attitudes Project, and Greg Smith, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
1. Data for U.S. Christians from 2006 Pew Global Attitudes survey.
2. U.S. general public data from April 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
3. U.S. general public data from April 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.