A poll released Thursday revealed curious contradictions in the Muslim-American community, which is more enthused about its country and president than any other religious group, yet is the least politically active and faces the greatest discrimination.
The Gallup poll on American religious groups offers a counterpoint to the stereotype that Muslims in the US lead isolated lives because they do not feel comfortable fitting in or associating with mainstream American culture. Moreover, it also offers insights into the Muslim-American experience – from how dramatically the election of President Obama affected them to how little they trust the activists who work on their behalf.
In total, the poll paints a picture of a community characterized by optimism but still seeking acceptance among its fellow citizens.
IN PICTURES: Islam in America
For instance, 93 percent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to America. They have the highest confidence in the integrity of US elections (57 percent), and they are the most hopeful about their lives over the next five years, compared with other groups.
Yet 48 percent of Muslim Americans report they experienced some kind of racial or religious discrimination, a finding that places them far ahead of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and atheists/agnostics.
One reason for the optimistic outlook despite discrimination could be that Muslim Americans see their financial fortunes improving. Some 64 percent of Muslim Americans in 2011 reported their standard of living got better, compared with 46 percent in 2008.
But the presidency of Mr. Obama has arguably had an even more powerful affect on Muslim Americans. Muslim Americans give him the highest approval rating – 80 percent – of any religious group. American Jews are a distant second, giving Obama a 65 percent approval rating.
The number is even more striking when compared with Muslim American support for George W. Bush in 2008, which was 7 percent.
The shift in leadership in Washington was “truly transformational” for US Muslims in how they viewed their loyalties to democratic institutions and the nation at large, says Dalia Mogahed, director and senior analyst of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, based in the United Arab Emirates.
After the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans faced intense scrutiny, both individually and from federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Obama is credited with helping smooth tensions through his outreach to the US Muslim community and his effort to end the Iraq war responsibly. The poll shows that 83 percent of Muslim Americans – more than any other religious group – say the war was a “mistake.”
Despite the positive signs, “there are still obstacles” for Muslim Americans, Ms. Mogahed says.
“They embrace American values and democratic principles but aren’t sure if the rest of American embraces them,” she says.
Some 56 percent of Protestants said American Muslims had no sympathy for Al Qaeda, the lowest number of any faith group. By comparison, 63 percent of Catholics and 70 percent of Jews thought Muslim Americans had no sympathies for Al Qaeda.
“That’s certainly a challenge for the [US Muslim] community – to have their loyalty questioned by such a large number of their fellow Americans,” Mogahed says.
Those challenges, however, have not led Muslim Americans to try to affect change at the ballot box. They are the least likely religious group to vote, with just 65 percent of Muslims in America are registered. One reason is age: The average age of a Muslim-American is 35, while the average American Protestant is 55. Younger people tend to be less politically active, Mogahed says.
Another reason is affiliation: Poll findings show that the majority of Muslim Americans say that none of the leading Muslim organizations in the US, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America, represents their interests.
With the 2012 election around the corner, Mogahed says political parties that want to reach out to Muslim-American voters might be better off establishing partnerships with local mosques than focusing on winning endorsements from national advocacy organizations. This is especially relevant considering that Muslim Americans who attend a religious service once a week are two times more likely to be politically active than those who attend less frequently, the poll found.
“The mosque should be more the mobilization engine” for get-out-the-vote drives than it has been in the past, she says.
The poll surveyed 2,482 adults, 475 of whom were Muslim. For Muslims, there was a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.
IN PICTURES: Islam in America