Surveys are guesses. The best tell us something we need to know; the worst simply confirm fears or wishful thinking. On May 22 the Pew Foundation released a new poll, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream: War on Terror Concerns. The conclusion of the survey is positive:

“The first-ever, nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim Americans finds them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”

This is certainly something non-Muslims and neocon policy makers need to hear, but probably not unexpected by the majority of American Muslims. The Pew Foundation has no observable ax to grind, no platform to push and plenty of experience conducting skillfully crafted polls. But polls are still guesses, even when educated and well-intentioned. And when results relate only to slightly more than a thousand American Muslims selected out of 55,000 interviews, it is important to take a close look at the criteria for selection, especially when the poll makers suggest that the total population of Muslims currently in the United States is only 2.3 million.

I invite readers to submit their comments to this post. I will start off the discussion as a bit of a devil’s advocate, not because I disagree with the findings per se but out of a disciplinal suspicion of what ordinary people say in surveys and formal interviews. I do not doubt that the key findings accurately reflect the responses of the thousand Muslims chosen, but how accurate is the sample, who might have been left out and what about Muslims understandably reluctant to express their true feelings in a post-9/11 climate of “terror-driven” Islamophobia?

“Overall, Muslim Americans have a generally positive view of the larger society. Most say their communities are excellent or good places to live.”

The most here is 72% of the Muslim responses, but only 65% of native-born Muslims, compared to a national sample response of 82%. The key finding I see here is that Muslims have a less positive view of the larger society than the hidden-handed average for all Americans. When asked how satisfied they are with the state of the U.S., the sample response is a mere 38% expressing satisfaction, with only 20% of native-born saying this. On the surface this would seem devastating, except that the national average for all Americans is only 32% expressing satisfaction. Given the failures of the Bush administration abroad and in an unpopular war abroad, this is no doubt a reflection of the moment. But what value is there in a question that measures “satisfaction” in such a wide-open way. I doubt that the 68% of Americans overall are about to take to the streets to express their dissatisfaction, although politicians beware the next election.

“A large majority of Muslim Americans believe that hard work pays off in this society. Fully 71% agree that most people who want to get ahead in the U.S. can make it if they are willing to work hard.”

The national average overall is only 64%; this poll result is skewed because the jump is only due to the fact that 74% of Muslim immigrants value hard work. Given that Muslims are more likely to come to the United States with advanced degrees (even if they end up driving cabs) than as farm workers, this finding appears to have nothing to do with being Muslim and everything to do with being advantaged. The fact that most Muslim immigrants say they are highly assimilated supports this observation.

“Based on data from this survey, along with available Census Bureau data on immigrants’ nativity and nationality, the Pew Research Center estimates the total population of Muslims in the United States at 2.35 million.”

No this is not a misprint. Since the U.S. Census bureau does not collect statistical data by religion, the hard data are hard to come by. Estimates vary considerably, often depending on what one thinks of Islam rather than an objective concern to get the number right. A listing at the website shows a range ca. the year 2000 from 1.6 million to 7 million (I discount a fanciful figure in a Pakistani newspaper of 12 million). The higher range is understandably favored by Muslim groups, e.g. CAIR; while Jewish groups generally opt for the smaller number. Obviously the number matters. But part of the problem is agreeing on just who is a Muslim. The Pew survey found that over half of native-born Muslims are African American. Apparently the survey did not include the Nation of Islam (perhaps up to 100,000 adherents) and other splinter groups from “mainstream” Islam. If anything, I suspect that the number of Muslims in the United States is more than the 2.3 million, but I have no wish to add my own ignorance to the debate. I only note that fundamentalist preachers concerned about the takeover of America by Muslims should reflect that apparently some 29 million Americans say they do not belong to any religion.

“Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. However, there is somewhat more acceptance of Islamic extremism in some segments of the U.S. Muslim public than others. Fewer native-born African American Muslims than others completely condemn al Qaeda. In addition, younger Muslims in the U.S. are much more likely than older Muslim Americans to say that suicide bombing in the defense of Islam can be at least sometimes justified. Nonetheless, absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world.”

Overwhelmingly the Muslim responses reject the war in Iraq (75%), but less than half criticize the U.S. war to rid the Taliban in Afghanistan, a reminder that there are rivalries in the category we call “Muslim.” Over half do not think the U.S. War on Terrorism is sincere, but 19% of the respondents chose not to respond (compared to only 8 % of the national sample refusal rate for this question). Similarly, 32% of the Muslims polled did not respond to the question about whether or not Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks and 27% did not express their opinion on al-Qaeda. These very high rates of no-response make the other responses problematic. But the important point here is that American Muslims do not feel free to express their opinions of these issues, whatever they might think. This alone shows the extent to which Muslims in the United States feel uneasy in the so-called War on Terror. And well they should, given the shabby record of the current administration on basic civil liberties and reported cases of ordinary Muslims accused falsely of being “terrorists” and at times suffering torture.

So what are we to make of the survey? I suggest you read the report yourself and come to your own conclusion rather than rely on media talking heads and blog pundit typing fingers. Comments welcome.

Daniel Martin Varisco