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American Muslims: Understanding a little-understood minority

Photo by HORIZON/Flickr (Creative Commons)
Source: Pew Research Center

Tomorrow's Congressional hearing on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism is likely to be remembered as a key moment defining racial and ethnic relations in the United States in the post-9/11 era. New York's Rep. Peter King, the Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has defended the hearing as "absolutely essential;" American Muslims, along with other immigrant groups and civil rights advocates, have condemned it as government-sanctioned xenophobia.

At the heart of the conversation are American Muslims, perhaps the nation's least-understood minority. Here are a few details about a segment of the U.S. population that numbers more than 2 million:

A Pew Research Center study from 2007 identified American Muslims as "mostly middle class and mainstream." While predominantly immigrants, the study found them to be generally more integrated into American society and culture and more affluent than their immigrant counterparts in Europe.

From the report:

The survey shows that although many Muslims are relative newcomers to the U.S., they are highly assimilated into American society. 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. And by nearly two-to-one (63%-32%) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

The report estimated a total U.S. Muslim population of roughly 2.35 million at the time, 65 percent foreign-born and 35 percent native-born, with more than half of the latter non-immigrant African Americans. The study also found that while there were some exceptions, "absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world."

The role of mosques will come up in the hearing, and there's a recent study that connects mosque involvement among American Muslims with civic involvement.

Completed in 2008, the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS) was carried out by two academics, Karam Dana of Harvard University and Matt Barreto of the University of Washington. Barreto, who heads the Latino Decisions polling firm, and Dana are collaborating on a book about the American Muslim population.

From the survey results:

Specifically, the MAPOS study finds as Muslims report being more involved in their mosque, they also report being more actively involved in American politics. On a range of political activities, those with no connection or involvement to the mosque report 1.7 average acts of political participation. In contrast, those who say they are very involved with the mosque report 2.6 political acts per year – a 53% increase in civic engagement.

...we find those with high levels of religiosity are overwhelmingly likely to believe that Islam is compatible with political participation in the United States. While 77% of those with the lowest levels of religiosity feel Islam is compatible with political involvement in America, 95% of those who are most religious feel Islam is compatible with American politics.

Lastly, another Pew Research report from January estimated that the Muslim population in the United States would likely more than double over the next 20 years, mainly a result of immigration and large families. This would put Muslims at 1.7% of the U.S. population, according to the report. Also, as U.S.-born Muslim children have families of their own, those who are immigrants would eventually become a smaller share of the population.