Survey Offers Stark Perspectives on Muslim-American Identity, Loyalty

While terrorists strap on bombs and wreak horrors half a world away, a debate continues in the United States over whether the seeds of such radicalism exist among the American-Muslim community.

Events like the arrest of a Brooklyn, N.Y., Muslim extremist last week for plotting to explode the fuel lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport, or the arrest a month earlier of men linked to an extremist group plotting to attack the military installation at Fort Dix, N.J., invigorates that debate.

A recent finding in the biggest survey ever taken of Muslim-Americans indicates that nearly a quarter of young Muslims believe homicide bombing can be justified to defend Islam, and 47 percent of all those surveyed consider themselves "Muslim first" ahead of being Americans.

Demographics breakdowns in the survey by Pew Research Center entitled "Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream" may be the greatest cause for concern, say observers. Though 13 percent of all respondents said that suicide bombing in defense of Islam was justified under certain, albeit rare, circumstances, that number rose to 26 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 30.

Added to that is the fact that the negative responses appear to be weighted toward African-American Muslims. For example, 9 percent of African-American Muslim respondents viewed Al Qaeda favorably as opposed to 3 percent of all foreign-born Muslims.

"It is precisely because an indoctrination is taking place. It means that a huge jihadi political effort is ongoing within the United States to brainwash young minds. That is the central problem," said Walid Phares, a terrorism expert for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

According to the poll, 53 percent of those surveyed said it is more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That majority cited increased intolerance and a greater proclivity for anti-terror policies to single out Muslims in its objectives.

"There is a serious tension between the success of assimilation and the success of radical ideology," said Stephen Schwartz, a Muslim convert and author of "Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror."

Schwartz said he believes the spread of radical Wahhabi Islam by Saudi Arabian migrants over the last two decades has created a hotbed of extremist activity, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The problem we have as Americans is that our openness and our freedom gave the radical ideologists the green light," Schwartz said.

Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Delaware, suggests that young Muslim-Americans are more likely expressing rebellious views than reflecting a real affinity to radical activity in the United States.

"It's their way of saying they are not going to suck it up to the system, a way to express their discontent with the system," Khan said while acknowledging that this age group was more likely to absorb anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric on the Internet and be more devout.

Khan acknowledges this as a problem the community needs to deal with, perhaps through better programs to engage the youth, but said "it should not be seen as though they are going to go out and join (the jihad)."

The poll does offer a flip side. Among the 60,000 American Muslims who responded to the Pew survey, sizable majorities are educated, generally happy and believe the American dream can be achieved through hard work. They reject extremism and suicide bombings.

In fact, these Muslims — and they include recent and older immigrants from across the globe as well as native African-Americans — are more likely to embrace mainstream American culture and are much more assimilated than their "ghettoized" counterparts in Europe today.

"Although many Muslims are relative newcomers to the U.S., they are highly assimilated into American society," read the survey's conclusions. "With the exception of very recent immigrants, most report that a large proportion of their closest friends are non-Muslims. On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society."

According to the Pew poll, approximately 1.4 million Muslim adults over 18 live in the U.S. today, nearly 85 percent of Muslims in the United States arrived after 1985; 39 percent after 2000.

The majority of American Muslims — 65 percent — are foreign-born, with almost a quarter of those coming from Arab countries. Of the 35 percent native-born Muslims, 20 percent of them are African-American.

Almost 60 percent of those surveyed have more than a high school education and 22 percent overall are currently enrolled in college, while 57 percent hold full or part-time jobs. According to the poll, 24 percent are self employed or small business owners.

The results, say some of the analysts who spoke to, show that it is unwise to use the poll to warn of a potential terror cell around every corner.

"I don't see that happening within this country because Muslims have overwhelmingly been supportive, as well as seeing themselves fully American, as well as Muslim," said Farid Senzai, a researcher with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a collaboration of scholars in the field of Islamic studies who served as advisors to the poll. "Clearly, Muslims here have integrated in ways that Muslims have not so much (in Europe)."

Europe is a touchtone because of its massive, often isolated enclaves of Islamic immigrants, particularly in France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, where reports of extremism include terror plots, tensions over religious law spilling into the courts, and in some cases, rioting and assassinations.

A different story is present in the U.S., said Senzai and others. While it is more difficult to get into this country legally, once Muslims are here they are more welcomed and appreciated than in Europe, and are more inclined to integrate as a result.

Match this to the European model where "opportunities are very low," Khan said .

Khan immigrated to the United States from India in 1992 but also spent time teaching in England, where he said he confronted more prejudice there than in the 14 years he's spent in the United States. He said British Muslims lived in hopeless situations comparably.

"They are among the least educated and skilled, least likely to be homeowners. That is not true about Muslim Americans at all. They live in suburbs, they have jobs and their education is very high," said Khan. "The (American) model is working fine."

But Phares, who just published his book "War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy," said he is skeptical about the advisers who helped to design the poll questions, suggesting they had a predisposition to what the American-Muslim community should look like.

"The Pew experts wanted to see the results that we all saw —- as an indictment of the U.S. government not of the responsible parties for this radicalization process within the community," said Phares.

Others point out that a joint poll conducted in January by Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and the Center on Policy Attitudes entitled "Public Opinion in Iran and America on Key International Issues" found that in the context of war, 24 percent of all Americans feel that intentional killing of civilians is often or sometimes justified.

Schwartz doesn't buy that explanation. He points to the percentage of the poll that find that 47 percent of respondents consider themselves "Muslim first." While a previous Pew poll found that Christians in America responded in similar fashion, Schwartz insists that these Muslims "are not saying something benevolent."

Khan argued that many Muslim first identifiers are recent immigrants who have arrived from failed states and never felt part of a nation before. Like devout Christians and Jews, "their religious identity has an impact on them everyday. "People should not make foolish conclusions about that," he said.