Sunday, May 27, 2007

What's right & what's wrong with Pew's recent survey

By: Dawud Walid / The Arab American News

A recently released study by the Pew Research Center on the American Muslim community, which does contain several positive findings about the community, is laced with some problematic and troubling statistics.

Pew’s study states that the overwhelming majority of the American Muslim community is happy with life in America and that it reflects mainstream American identity patterns regarding placement of importance of religious identity with national identity. Moreover, Pew's analysis also shows that American Muslims resolutely reject extremism in the name of Islam.

The more problematic portions of the study, however, relate to reported condoning of suicide bombing by Muslim youth in the defense of Islam and significant lowering of the generally accepted number of Muslims in America.

According to Pew, 26% of the Muslim youth answered that suicide bombing even against civilians in the defense of Islam is acceptable ranging from 2% having strong endorsement to 11% stating that it is rarely acceptable. Obviously, if these troubling statistics are fairly accurate within a 5% error margin, then these answers must be placed within context, for the same study also states that these same youth are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives in America.

Although Pew's study shows that Muslim youth show a higher level of religiosity than their parent generation, those who have the pulse of the community know that the majority of Muslim youth do not regularly attend mosques nor are they involved in receiving consistent education on Islam from qualified teachers. Thus, the lectures that are intermittently given in mosques against extremism, to the explanations of the fatwa given by the Fiqh Council of North America against extremism in 2005, may have escaped a sizeable percentage of the Muslim youth. Clearly, the majority of American Muslims (95%) according to Pew, know that attacking civilians or condoning "collateral damage" in defending Muslim lands is unacceptable. A small percentage of Muslim youth driven by lack of understanding or strong emotions due to political conflicts in the Muslim world probably have not internalized the Islamic basis against such extremism.

Knowing the psyche of the Muslim community, however, I believe Muslim youth answered this question based upon a particular geographical location in which the socio-political environment of Muslims is in a state of desperation. Suicide bombing among Muslims in a historical context has been viewed by some as a means of resistance by Palestinians against Israeli occupation. In reiteration that attacks against civilians is clearly prohibited by virtual consensus of Islamic scholars, American Muslim youth answered this question within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not within the American context.

In regards to Pew's demographic results, which state that there are approximately 2.35 million Muslims in America, these numbers are extremely low in comparison to other studies and accepted numbers by scholars and organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which estimates the American Muslim community to be approximately 6 million. For instance, Pew states that 37% of the American Muslim population is of Arab background, which would put the population of Arab Muslims at 859,500. However, according to the Arab American Institute's scientific study, there were approximately 3.5 million Arab Americans in 2000 with 24% being Muslim. Factoring in population growth due to birth rate and immigration, there are far more than one million Arab Muslims in America. Other shortcomings in Pew's research includes lack of means of identifying or communicating with Muslims that have names that are not readily known to be traditional names of Muslims such as Muslims who originate from sub-Saharan Africa to converts with legal names such as Robert Smith that do not reflect religious identity. Pew, themselves, admitted this point during their press conference on the report, specifically citing their lack of identification and communication with some Muslims, using Senegalese as their example.

In short, Pew's latest study appears to have some flaws, but there are lessons to be learned from the study. Muslims are progressing in many areas within the society and are truly part of mainstream America. This study, however, should be a wake up call to the Muslim community that it is incumbent for it to invest more in community organizations and think tanks to disseminate more accurate reports about the Muslim community with proper explanation of the community’s sensitivities as well as giving increased support for Islamic institutions that give proper education to Muslim youth about Islamic positions on contemporary issues to help shield them from extreme positions.

The writer is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Michigan.

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