Finding the news on Muslim Americans

PewStudyWhenever I have the pleasure of writing a story based on another organization’s work (I actually cringe when I have to do this), it’s always interesting trying to come up with a news hook that is relevant but not what everyone else is going to do. In these situations you usually have a press release with the preordained lede, but there is nothing forcing journalists to use it. Sometimes the press release lede is a no-brainer, but sometimes there is room for creativity.

Such was the case for an excellent $1 million survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life earlier this week on Muslim Americans. The survey, according to Pew, “finds them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”

And that’s what most major media outlets told us the next day. But is that the news in this survey? Here is The Economist:

Hypothesis: the Pew people are actually running a clever survey on us, the media people and the bloggers, seeing how we react to a poll that can be interpreted in many ways. Thoughts?

Now, I doubt Pew spent $1 million in an effort to see how the media would react, but the various links posted on The Economist‘s blog show how varied the responses were. But like most big outlets, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran with Pew’s lead. Here’s the Post‘s Alan Cooperman:

Unlike Muslim minorities in many European countries, U.S. Muslims are highly assimilated, close to parity with other Americans in income and overwhelmingly opposed to Islamic extremism, according to the first major, nationwide random survey of Muslims.

The survey by the Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of U.S. Muslims said the use of suicide bombings against civilian targets to defend Islam is never justified. But 5 percent said it is justified “rarely,” 7 percent said “sometimes,” and 1 percent said “often”; the remaining 9 percent said they did not know or declined to answer.

Those survey numbers are great, but the news to me was buried 12 graphs into Cooperman’s story and received scant attention:

Still, the poll found “pockets of sympathy for extremism” particularly among African Americans and young Muslims, said Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center.

Native-born African American Muslims, who represent about 20 percent of the total Muslim population, are its most disillusioned segment, the report shows. They are more skeptical than foreign-born Muslims of the idea that hard work pays off. About 13 percent are satisfied with the way things are going, compared with 29 percent of other native-born Muslims and 45 percent of Muslim immigrants.

One of the poll’s most striking findings, Kohut said, is that African American Muslims are considerably more likely than immigrant Muslims to express support for al-Qaeda.

Nine percent of African American Muslims expressed a favorable attitude toward Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, while 36 percent held a very unfavorable view. Among foreign-born Muslims, 3 percent had a favorable view of al-Qaeda while 63 percent chose “very unfavorable.”

Rebecca Trounson of the Times placed the bad news six graphs into her story:

Nonetheless, he said, the study also found pockets of sympathy and support for extremism among Muslim Americans, especially among the young.

Overall, although 78% of respondents said suicide bombings of civilian targets to defend Islam could not be justified, 13% said they could be, under some circumstances. That view was strongest — 26% — among those younger than 30.

I haven’t reviewed the original survey data myself, so I’m not one to say definitively what should or should have been mentioned in the lede, but it seems to me that saying American Muslims are generally happy with this country in comparison to European Muslims is old news. Having such precise polling data is awesome and very newsworthy, but the more interesting result, and that could mean it is more newsworthy, is that there are a significant number of American Muslims who are not happy and feel sympathies for extremist Islam.

Now the question is, Why? Are these younger Muslim Americans just rebelling against their elders, or is there a deeper theological reason for this trend?

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  • Jerry

    I find it interesting that many treat the story in splendid isolation. Looking at a broader context can be interesting. For example, consider the context provided by Glenn Greenwald’s two opinion pieces: He compared and contrasted the Muslim attitudes with Christian ones from an earlier poll:

    A 2005 Pew poll, for instance, found that large majorities of Christians believe in torture…

    42% of American Christians … consider themselves “Christians first,” not “Americans first.”

    One of the questions they asked was whether “bombings and other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are sometimes justified”? Americans approved of such attacks by a much larger margin than Iranians — 51-16% (and a much, much larger margin than American Muslims — 51-13%):

    I’m sure many readers of this post believe that our duty to God is vastly higher than our duty to the state. Christians who believe that should understand how Muslims might have the same attitude.

    The key point is that we need to keep the attitudes of American Christians as expressed in polls in mind when evaluating the answers of Muslim-Americans.

    For example, we can find screaming headlines about Muslim attitudes, but where is the screaming headlines about torture loving Christians who are not only traitors to America but even, horror, gasp, believe that bombing civilians is justified.

    And, to me, that is the central failing of most of the reporting, lack of context.

  • ira rifkin

    The report is well worth reading (and available on the Pew Website) because there’s a lot more to it than the PC walk-on-eggs line spun by Pew and adhered to by more than a few major media outlets. Here’s a few nuggets:

    1) Pew pegged the American Muslim population at 2.35 million (including about 1.5 million adults) – way less than the figures (as many as 8 million)tossed around by Muslim advocacy groups and routinely parroted by the media. This has major political implications. It contradicts the conventional wisdom (advanced by the same above mentioned advocacy groups) about the ability of Muslims to swing elections and influence politicians.

    2)28% of American Muslims say they DO NOT believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks and 32% said they did not know who did it or declined to answer the question. What is it they say about denial being more than a river in Egypt? Is this Rosie’s doing?

    3)Moreover, among Muslims under age 30, 38% say Arabs were not responsible for the attacks. Also, “Muslims who are most committed to their religion are approximately twice as likely as those who express relatively low religious commitment to say they do not believe groups of Arabs were responsible for 9/11 (46% to 22%).” Can we get a follow up question?

    4)While only (only?) 8% of American Muslims say “suicide bombings against civilian targets tactics are often (1%) or sometimes (7%) justified in the defense of Islam,” 15% of Muslims under age 30 say it often (2%) or sometimes (13% can be justified. Wouldn’t you like to know what they mean by “the defense of Islam?”

    5) The report notes that higher levels of support for suicide bombings among younger Muslims “resembles patterns found among Muslims in Europe…” Does this mean that the U.S. is headed toward the same problems with alienated young Muslims as we see in England, France and elsewhere in Europe? Another follow up, please!

    6)Why does Pew consistantly compare the attitudes of American Muslims to those in Europe and in Muslim nations? What’s the point in comparing apples and oranges? It’s hardly news that American Muslims are more moderate than their co-religionists in Pakistan or the Palestinian Authority, both of which are cited in the report. When surveying evangelical or Jewish attitudes, would Pew use attitudes in Africa and Israel as baselines?

    The report has many more nuggets buried in its 102 pages. I suspect that once the feel-good first day stories pass and reporters have more time to actually read the entire report before writing the tone of the coverage will change.

  • Mithras

    When surveying evangelical or Jewish attitudes, would Pew use attitudes in Africa and Israel as baselines?

    Depends on whether fearmongers were selling the idea of a worldwide evangelical or Jewish culture of militancy against the west. You know, like right-wing “Christians” do about Muslims.

  • Jerry

    feel-good first day stories

    Um, these are feel good? I’d hate to see feel bad headlines. A sample of the initial headlines I found. While the bias of the headline writers can be easily determined, I did not find them ‘feel good’ but rather more or less accurate even if, as I commented earlier, ignore comparisons to Christian attitudes.

    25% of Muslim teens: Suicide bombs ok Jerusalem Post

    ‘Troubling’ views on suicide bombings 78% of US Muslims opposed … San Francisco Chronicle

    Survey: US Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism Washington Post

    US Muslims’ opinions studied Dallas Morning News

    Survey of US Muslims shows moderate views Kansas City Star

    Younger US Muslims more likely to support suicide bombings, poll shows Detroit Free Press

    Tiny Minority, Big Problem The Conservative Voice

    Some American Muslims back suicide attacks Inside Bay Area

    Poll: 1 in 4 young US Muslims back suicide bombings – at least rarely Casa Grande Valley Newspapers, AZ

  • holmegm

    Watching the reflexive attempts to find moral equivalence in the wake of this is fascinating.

    The release of these numbers has caused knees to jerk so hard in trying to find some “Christian extremists” for counterbalance, that people are saying very absurd things.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Not to blow my own horn, but I had blogged reactions to the report…First day here (about the population estimates) and here (about suicide bombing of civilians).
    A bit more reflection here (scroll down).

  • Jerry

    Not that my opinion is worth much, but I liked and agreed with Jeffrey Weiss’ posting.

    We’re now seeing coverage about the coverage of the report. For example:

    Media Coverage of Muslims Bombs
    A Pew poll on Muslims in America painted a positive picture. So why was the coverage so negative?

    I think that article makes an important point – there is another level to explore attitudes. The thesis of one of the comments is that if you were more precise about the question, asking about the Israel/Palestine mess and the use of suicide bombing as a tactic in asymmetric warfare the answer would be a lot different than terrorist suicide bombing in the US.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    I too found mostly negative reporting of the Pew study, despite the fact it is quite consistent with previous studies associated with Hartford Seminary and the University of Maryland. It would have helped to have some wider context, such as that argued for in the recent Christian Science Monitor piece on “The Myth of Muslim Support For Terror.”

    When examining the upsurge of missionary Islam (especially Ahmadiyya) among black Americans just prior to the civil rights movement, one will see some historical reasons for current African-American Muslim attitudes towards the United States. Given that most of the post-1965 Muslim immigrants have been social and economic elites, it is not surprising they’ve had great differences in both experiences and attitudes with native black Muslims.