I was interested to read Reihan Salam's recent post on the future of Islam in America. He offers his perspective growing up Muslim (his parents had immigrated from Muslim majority Bangladesh) and opines that American Muslims will grow more secular over time (just as the rest of the country seems to be doing). But it was the quantitative information he quotes that really jolted me.
The best survey evidence offers only a limited and inconclusive portrait of America’s Muslim community. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States, and that 63 percent were born outside of the country. Of this foreign-born slice of the Muslim population, 45 percent arrived in the United States after 1990 and 70 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens. This population is incredibly diverse. Roughly 13 percent of all U.S. Muslims are native-born African-Americans. Some U.S. Muslims are highly educated professionals leading integrated lives, while others are less-skilled workers earning poverty-level incomes in ethnic enclaves.2.75 million is less than 1% of the US population! If I had needed to guess, I would have said maybe 3%. What's more, I'm guessing the majority of the Muslim population in the US is concentrated in cities within a few US states (not all coastal, apparently the largest Muslim population by percentage is in Michigan?!). This means it's probably quite easy for large swathes of the American population to go through life without ever working closely with or having long-term interactions with a single Muslim. This must be especially true for the subset of the population that doesn't attend college. I am pretty sure I didn't really meet any Muslims until I attended university (still in Oklahoma). And of course since then I went more coastal and more urban, so Muslims are common enough to me that I can be shocked by these demographic revelations.
According to Pew, 69 percent of U.S. Muslims claim that religion is an important part of their lives; 47 percent report attending worship services on a weekly basis. These numbers closely parallel the numbers for U.S. Christians. It is also true, however, that one-fifth of U.S. Muslims seldom or never attend worship services, a sure sign of secularization.
Another sign is that a large majority of U.S. Muslims appear to be comfortable with religious pluralism. Pew found that 56 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that many different religions can lead to eternal life while 35 percent believe that only Islam will get you there. Similarly, 57 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that there are many valid ways to interpret Islamic teachings, as opposed to 37 percent who maintain that only one interpretation is valid. Suffice it to say, the notion that many different religions are of equal value is not likely to be embraced by the religiously orthodox. Indeed, one possibility is that this more relaxed approach to the demands of religion represents a way station on the road to abandoning religion entirely.
Anyway, I don't want to excuse intolerance or Islamophobia, but is it any wonder that so many people in the US just aren't sure about Muslims? They're completely alien to much of the country.