American Muslims Not What You Think – Breaking from Stereotypes

There is this great Pakistani song titled “Yeh Hum Nahin” meaning “This is Not Us” as in “We are not Terrorists”–a truly great message. Here is a subtitled version:

Anyway, I was reminded of that song as I discovered a surprisingly good editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past weekend. It pretty much asks Americans to discard the stereotypical images of Muslims, especially American Muslims, as robotically praying people.

In television land, it always seems to be prayer time for Muslims. Every mention of Islam evokes rows of men bowing toward Mecca, rising and falling in robotic unison.

So pervasive is this image that many Americans think Islam alone defines the attitudes and actions of all Muslims, even those in the United States. By extension, many fear that all Muslims are a threat to U.S. democracy. We see this manifested in the hostile reactions to the persistent — and false — rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

These attitudes cripple our debates over immigration, law enforcement, education and foreign policy. They also hide the fact that U.S. Muslims are a constituency up for grabs in the November election. Electoral swing states such as Michigan, Ohio and Virginia all have significant Muslim populations. And on some hot-button cultural issues, Muslim Americans could potentially be a strong ally to the Christian right.

If that seems improbable, think again. As a professor of sociology who studies U.S. Muslim assimilation patterns, I have analyzed numerous nationwide polls of American Muslims on a variety of topics, ranging from their satisfaction with American society to their opinions on U.S. foreign policy to their attitudes on abortion and the environment. U.S. Muslims are a diverse, well-informed group; in fact, they are the most ethnically diverse Muslim population in the world. They come from more than 80 countries on four continents. Most are not Arab. Not all are immigrants. None are Barack Obama.

One-fifth are U.S.-born black Muslims (mainly converts), and a few are U.S.-born Anglo and Hispanic converts. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants have lived here 10 or more years, and they resemble the general U.S. population in their socioeconomic status. Most are employed, a quarter have a bachelor’s degree or higher and a quarter earn $75,000 a year or more.

U.S. Muslims are also like most Americans in another important way: They are not uniformly religious. Nearly half — 46.7 percent — attend a mosque seldom, never or only a few times a year. About one-fourth go weekly, and one-third go more than once a week, proportions similar to those of U.S. Christians and Jews. Like these other groups, U.S. Muslims range from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal and from devout practicing believers to secular, non-practicing, in-name-only Muslims. More Christians say they pray daily — 70 percent to 61 percent — than do U.S. Muslims.

Like most Americans, U.S. Muslims are generally not activists. Just as regular church and synagogue attendance correlates with higher political activity for U.S. Christians and Jews, so does regular mosque attendance for U.S. Muslims. Even among the devout, however, there’s a sharp distinction between being a good Muslim and being an Islamic fundamentalist.

The elements that tell us how U.S. Muslims will behave politically are the same ones that predict the political attitudes and involvement of other Americans. People with more education, higher incomes, more group consciousness and more feelings of marginalization are the most likely to be politically active because they feel they have more at stake.

Many U.S. Muslims are immigrants and not yet eligible to vote. Only 63 percent are registered voters, compared to the U.S. average of 76 percent. But they are slightly more likely than most citizens to have contacted a politician and, like other racial and ethnic minorities, are a bit more likely to be Democrats.


None of this tells us how U.S. Muslims feel on the issues or how they may vote in November. Predictably, they disagree with the general public on U.S. Middle East policy: A much smaller percentage of Muslims thinks the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan were “the right decision.” But a majority of U.S. Muslims are like most Americans in opposing gay marriage (76 percent vs. 69 percent), favoring more government spending for the needy (73 percent vs. 63 percent) and disapproving of President Bush’s job performance (67 vs. 59 percent).

On procreation and gender issues, U.S. Muslims actually line up with the Christian right rather than the general public: 75 percent of U.S. Muslims oppose abortion, compared to only 46 percent of the general public, and 59 percent want the government to do more to protect morality in society, compared to 37 percent of the American public. This natural Muslim-Right alliance has yet to be reflected in domestic politics, but perhaps the time is coming.

First, though, both politicians and the rest of the American public need to begin seeing U.S. Muslims for who they really are. It turns out they’re far more diverse and interesting than those images of robotically praying men and have a lot in common with mainstream America. It’s time their public image reflected this reality.

Jen’nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, is a Carnegie Scholar studying Muslim American political assimilation.

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