What Do American Muslims Think?

As I recently pointed out, many conservatives want to block the building of a mosque near the World Trade Center, largely on the grounds that the mosque would be a beachhead for the eventual establishment of sharia law within the U.S. This is a widespread view that I have read in several conservative outlets, though obviously many conservatives would reject such claims. I argued that the mosque should be allowed on the basis of property rights.

I thought it would be useful for conservatives (and the rest of us) to hear what American Muslims say in response to such conservative claims. So I asked a prominent Colorado Muslim who is active in political circles (and whom I’ve briefly met). In a reply that struck me as shooting the messenger, he said that I am ignorant, my questions are offensive, and therefore he will not answer them. Yet it seems to me that, if American Muslims believe they are widely misunderstood in the culture, a good way to address that would be to join the dialog.

I could expand the questions. What do American Muslims think about sharia law in the Middle East and in select regions of Europe? What do American Muslims think about Ahmadinejad’s oppressive regime in Iran, and what do they think about the student protesters there? What do American Muslims think about the rights of homosexuals? What do American Muslims think about those who (like a student at the University of California, San Diego) call for the obliteration of Israel? What do they think about Faisal Shahzad’s attempted bombing in New York and the Islamic death threats against the South Park creators?

Perhaps others will comment about what they take to be typical Muslim American views on such matters, or link to more detailed survey results.

In the meantime, I pulled up a 2008 report from Pew, “Portrait of Muslims [in the U.S.] — Beliefs and Practices.” While the report does not offer findings on the substantive matters I’ve described, it does offer some interesting tidbits.

While 82 percent of Muslims profess to believe in God with absolute certainty, five percent “do not believe in God.” Nine percent said their religion is not very or “at all important” to them. Thus, at least some Muslims treat their religion as more of a cultural affiliation than a belief system.

While 40 percent of American Muslims attend religious services at least once a week, 34 percent attend services seldom or never. While 71 percent pray daily, 16 percent pray seldom or never.

Half of American Muslims think the Koran is the literally true word of God, 36 percent think it’s the word of God “but not literally true word for word,” and eight percent think it’s “written by men, not the word of God.”

Interestingly, 60 percent of U.S. Muslims said “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion,” and 56 percent said “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

While these findings do not reveal particular, substantive views, they do indicate (as one would expect) that American Muslims tend to be relatively liberal and pluralistic with respect to religion.

While practically all Americans have an opportunity to regularly and intimately interact with Christians, fewer have such an opportunity with Muslims, due simply to the demographics of the nation. If American Muslims wish to be better understood, I can think of no better way to accomplish that than for them to publicly articulate their views.



Anonymous June 20, 2010 at 4:39 PM

“Half of American Muslims think the Koran is the literally true word of God,”

That means that at least half of them, when push comes to shove, believe or are sympathetic with the aims of Sharia. This goes against your claim that “American Muslims tend to be relatively liberal and pluralistic with respect to religion”. I would not draw that conclusion.

B. White

Ari June 20, 2010 at 6:27 PM

B., apparently you missed the qualifier, “relatively.” -Ari

Ari June 20, 2010 at 6:34 PM

Also, B., just because somebody claims that some text is the inerrant word of God, doesn’t mean they know what that text actually says, or that they what they think it says matches what you think it says. Likewise, many Christians claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, yet they either don’t know what the Bible says, or they explain away its controversial parts .-Ari

Evil Red Scandi June 21, 2010 at 10:14 AM
Speaking about polls of Muslims, there have been a few that have produced results along these lines:


That is to say, roughly 1/3 of Muslims (students in this poll; other polls have sampled larger demographics) think it’s OK to kill in the name of Islam. That’s not an insignificant number.

Leaving aside the obvious assaults on reason, any religious belief can be twisted towards evil ends, and most of the major ones have been at one point or another. Islam requires less twisting than most, because it requires that its adherents emulate the life and behavior of Muhammad, and his behavior throughout his life was inconsistent. He was peaceful when he had no political or military power, and bloodthirsty when he had it. It’s certainly true that there are Muslims living peacefully in places where they have little or no political or military power. The question is: if they had it, would their behavior change accordingly?

It’s the Religion of Peace*.

*until they get the upper hand.

Ari June 21, 2010 at 10:21 AM

The report cited above pertains to British Muslim students, whom I suspect are more fundamentalist than are typical American Muslims. Tthe findings are indeed frightening: “Almost a third of British Muslim students believe killing in the name of Islam can be justified, according to a poll. The study also found that two in five Muslims at university support the incorporation of Islamic sharia codes into British law.”