Who are Muslim Americans?

As a college student and avid reader since childhood, I often visit my local bookstore, sometimes simply to browse and other times just to relax with a good book and cup of coffee. And as it happens, I often find myself looking through the religious section, and I find it intriguing just how many books there are on jihad, Islam, and terrorism, as if each were inextricably linked in a awful web of horror. Perhaps the authors are simply supplementing a popular view in the age of the “War on Terror”, or maybe the brightly colored books filled with inflammatory language and analyses on the religion of Islam just sell well. Either way, it’s enough to make one wonder exactly what the majority of the people in the world think of Islam and Muslims these days.

While almost anyone can spout off these sensational views on what they think of Islam and its adherents, it’s rarer to find true in-depth and impartial analysis on exactly who represents Islam, i.e. the average Muslim, especially in the United States. This is why I was very happy to come across the Muslim West Facts Project, a partnership between the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Coexist Foundation, and more specifically, a very interesting report titled “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait” (you can download it here). The report surveyed about 300,000 people, and highlights Muslim American ethnic, economic, and political diversity, giving real insight on exactly what the modern Muslim American, including the youth, is really like.

So according to this report, who are Muslim Americans? While there is a great deal of statistical information contained in the report, too much to list here, these are the overall highlights:

  • Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group surveyed in the United States, with about 35% identifying as African American, 25% as White, 20% as Asian, 18% as “Other”, and 1% as Hispanic.
  • While around 65% of Americans say that religion plays an important role in their life, a higher amount of Muslim Americans (around 80%) say the same, with only Mormons a little higher at 85%.
  • Around 41% of Muslim Americans say they go to their place of worship at least once a week, comparable to Protestants (also 41%), and slightly higher than Catholics (37%).
  • 38% of Muslim Americans fall in the middle of the political spectrum, while 29% say they are either liberal or very liberal and about 25% saying they are conservative or very conservative. Interestingly enough, Muslim Americans are the least likely religious community, after Jewish Americans, to describe themselves as conservative, and the most likely, after Jewish Americans, to call themselves liberal. However, they are still the religious group most evenly spread along the political spectrum.
  • Muslim American women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups, after Jewish women. And as a group, Muslim Americans have the highest degree of economic gender parity (i.e., similar income levels).
  • Another interesting finding is that Muslim American women are just as likely as Muslim American men to report attending religious service at least once a week, in contrast with findings in predominantly Muslim countries, where the men are more likely than women to say the same.

The survey findings of Muslim youth, however, were slightly less positive, though still fairly good.

  • When asked to evaluate their lives, young Muslim Americans, at 40%, were the least likely group of young respondents to be classified as “thriving,” while young Jewish Americans at 69%, and Protestant Americans at 61%, are the most likely groups to be classified as “thriving”.
  • Religion, however, still remains an important aspect in the lives of most Muslim American youth (77%), comparable to young Protestants (74%). Young Muslim Americans are still far more likely, though, than young Jewish Americans at 42% and Catholic Americans at 57% to say that religion plays an important role in their daily lives.
  • Most young Muslim Americans are engaged in some type of work, with about 67% saying they have a job, either paid or unpaid. About 25% of young Muslim Americans are also professional workers such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, though they are the least likely group of youths surveyed to report being satisfied with their jobs.
  • A slim majority of young Muslim Americans, at 51%, say they are registered to vote, which was among the lowest levels reported in the survey by youth. In sharp contrast, about 78% of young Protestants are registered to vote, and 73% of young Jewish Americans.

While I would love to continue listing more information, I would like to touch on a few points before wrapping up. I believe this report bucks the current trend of demonizing and sensationalizing Muslims by breaking down into statistical analysis (or hard facts) exactly how most Muslim Americans live. It shows that many of us consider religion very dear and near to our hearts, and how both men and women strive to go to the mosque at least once a week. It also shows how diverse our political views are, and how Muslim American women are very likely to try to obtain as much education as they can, as well as earn a salary on par with their male counterparts. (Go us!)

In comparison, the survey findings on Muslim American youth were a bit less positive, though not by a great deal. As someone who studies politics, both domestic and global, and the effect of the United States on the Muslim world, it frankly troubled me most that it seems a good number of Muslim youth are uninterested in civic and political participation. While I can understand to some degree the disillusionment of Muslim Americans in general with the politics of the United States, I find it inexcusable that they would refuse to participate in academic and political discussions that will end up affecting them, whether they realize it or not, simply because of their cynicism. It is, after all, the people in power who will ultimately make the decisions that affect not only the daily lives of Muslim Americans, but those in the greater Muslim world as well.

I must, myself, however, admit to being a bit cynical as well because even while this may true, that are simply not many Muslims interested in going into politics, foreign policy institutes, non-profit organizations such as Human Rights Watch, academia, and the such, but perhaps this cynicism is unwarranted, especially since I am living proof that the trend is changing, even if by a little. After all, after I hopefully get my PhD one day I plan to write a book on the contemporary world of Islam. And maybe I’ll put it right next to the ones in the bookstore that seek to demonize it.