8/28/2005

Stars, Stripes, Crescent

A reassuring portrait of America's Muslims.



Ever since it became clear that three of the four jihadis who bombed London on July 7 were born and bred in England, the British have been taking a hard look at their Muslim neighbors: Do they share the same values? How do they fare economically? Whom do they cheer when England plays Pakistan at cricket? And how many more would-be bombers are among them?

As it happens, Her Majesty's government was well clued on these questions before the bombers struck: A 2004 Home Office study showed, for example, that British Muslims are three times likelier to be unemployed than the wider population, that their rates of civic participation are low, and that as many as 26% do not feel loyal to Britain. By contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau is forbidden by law from keeping figures on religious identification (although it collects voluminous information on race and ethnicity), so there are no authoritative data on the size and nature of America's Muslim population. Yet if the U.S. is ever attacked by American jihadis, we will no doubt ask the same questions about our Muslim community that Britons are now asking about theirs.

Here is what we know.

First, let's dispose of the common misconception that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are one and the same. In fact, most Arab-Americans aren't Muslim, and most Muslim Americans aren't Arab. According to the 2000 census, there are 1.2 million Americans of Arab descent, of whom only 24% (according to a survey by the Arab American Institute) are Muslim. As for the rest, they are mainly Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant. They are also highly successful, with an above-average median household income of $52,000 and an astonishing intermarriage rate of over 75%, suggesting they are well on their way toward blending into the great American melting pot.

Information on American Muslims is sketchier. Thanks to a 2004 Zogby International survey, we know that a plurality of Muslim Americans--about one-third--are of South Asian descent; 26% are Arab and another 20% are American blacks. But until 2001 we had no idea how many Muslims lived in America, and even now the figure remains a matter of intense controversy. All major Muslim advocacy groups put the number at above six million, which, as Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum observes, has the convenience of being higher than the American Jewish population. Yet all independent surveys put the real figure at no more than three million, while the most credible study to date, by Tom Smith of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, estimates total Muslim population at 1,886,000. "[It] is hard to accept that Muslims are greater than one percent of the population," he writes.

Whatever the real figure, what's reasonably clear is that Muslim Americans, like Arab-Americans, have fared well in the U.S. The Zogby survey found that 59% of American Muslims have at least an undergraduate education, making them the most highly educated group in America. Muslim Americans are also the richest Muslim community in the world, with four in five earning more than $25,000 a year and one in three more than $75,000. They tend to be employed in professional fields, and most own stock, either personally or through 401(k) or pension plans. In terms of civic participation, 82% are registered to vote, half of them as Democrats. Interestingly, however, the survey found that 65% of Muslim Americans favor lowering the income tax.

In these respects, Muslim Americans differ from Muslim communities in Britain and Continental Europe, which tend to be poor and socially marginalized. Four other features set American Muslims apart.

First, unlike in Europe the overwhelming majority of Muslims arrived here legally, and many of those who didn't were deported after Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, according to Ali Al-Ahmed of the Washington-based Saudi Institute, there are probably no more than a few thousand Muslim illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Second, 21% of Muslim Americans intermarry, according to the 2001 Religious Identification Survey of the City University of New York--close to the national rate of 22% of Americans who marry outside their religion. And because 64% of Muslim Americans are foreign born, there is reason to expect that figure to grow among second and third generations.

Third, according to Ishan Bagby, a professor at the University of Kentucky who recently made a study of mosque attendance in Detroit, the average mosque-goer is 34 years old, married with children, has at least a bachelor's degree, and earns about $74,000 a year. If this is representative of Muslim Americans as a whole, it suggests that the religiously committed among them hardly fit the profile of the alienated, angry young Muslim men so common today in Europe.

Finally, Muslim Americans benefit from leaders who, despite some notable exceptions, are generally more responsible than Muslim leaders in Britain and Europe. Just compare the forthright condemnations of terrorism by the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council to the cunningly ambiguous utterances of France's Tariq Ramadan, to say nothing of the openly jihadist positions of some of Britain's most notorious imams.

So does the U.S. have a "Muslim problem"? If the data above are accurate, they strongly suggest we do not; on the contrary, America's Muslims tend to be role models both as Americans and as Muslims. But that does not mean there aren't any problems. One comes in the form of U.S. mosques funded by Saudi Arabia, which can serve as a conduit for the kingdom's extreme Wahhabist brand of Islam. Mr. Al-Ahmed calls these mosques "an incubator for suicide bombings and terrorism." Another is that, while most American Muslims have successfully integrated into American life, there remain culturally isolated and impoverished enclaves of Muslim immigrants. It was in just such an enclave in Jersey City, N.J., that the disciples of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Similarly, in Lodi, Calif., where two Pakistani men have been charged with attending terrorist training camps, some 80% of the Pakistani community does not speak adequate English.

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