A Response to the PEW Study on Muslim Americans

A Response to the PEW Study on Muslim Americans

By Ingrid Mattson, PhD
President, The Islamic Society of North America

This week the Pew Research Center released a report about Muslim Americans. I was among a group of academics who were consulted by the Pew as they were preparing a list of questions to be included in their poll. We academic advisors had no control over the final shape of the questionnaire, nor over the final analysis offered by Pew. Over the next year, we will see a number of experts in polling challenge some of the methods employed by Pew as well as their conclusions. Most scholars of American Islam are convinced that Pew’s estimate of the number of Muslim Americans is extremely low. The study simply does not take into account the extent to which Muslims withhold identifying their religious identity out of fear that this information will be misused.

At this point, however, the most pressing concern is finding ways to contextualize the data. Pew presents comparative data in some cases, such as the finding that roughly the same numbers of Muslim Americans and Christian Americans think of themselves as “Muslim” or “Christian,” rather than “American” first. However, as Glenn Greenwald discusses in his analysis of the study on Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/?last_story=/opinion/greenwald/2007/05/23/polls/) relevant comparisons for Americans’ approval of the use of violence for what they consider just causes are lacking.

It is these statistics that are the most disturbing. As a Muslim leader, I am disturbed that 7% of Muslim Americans say that “suicide bombings against civilian targets” are “sometimes justified.” How could those who claim to follow the Prophet Muhammad reject his explicit teachings on this topic? But what am I to make of the fact that according to the University of Maryland, 51% of Americans believe that “bombings and other types of attacks against civilians are sometimes justified”? I am simply dumbfounded that according to a 2005 Pew poll, a majority of American Catholics and White Protestants think that “the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information” can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. How could those who claim to worship Jesus, who was tortured by political authorities, accept the torture of human beings?

What all of this demonstrates, more clearly than ever before, is that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the moral leadership of our religious and political leaders is clearly deficient. Although the Islamic Society of North America has been clear in its denunciation of terrorism (and, as Americans, we have denounced torture), there are others sending different messages.

All of us need to restate our position that “any means necessary” is not heroic, it is not manly, it is immoral and sinful. Beyond words, moral leaders need to engage the imagination of their communities to, at the very least, understand what it would feel like to be the victim of torture, cluster bombing or a terrorist bombing at our (American, Israeli, Muslim) hands. Here, there is a perfect opportunity for cooperation and common ground between moral leaders and artists – secular or religious. We need their stories, their plays and their films that allow us to imagine being in the position of the other.

What this means is that our narratives – the narratives we tell from the pulpits and minbars – as well as from the politician’s podium – need to begin from the assertion of the God-given dignity of all human beings. Then we need to engage this imaginative capacity to call for a robust heroism that is fully-grounded in morality. The hero who resists oppression, not least of all, the oppression he is tempted to inflict upon others.

(This is an abbreviated version of a longer article entitled, “A Call for Moral Leadership: Imagining a New Heroism;” the full article can be found on Dr Mattson’s web page at Hartford Seminary: macdonald.hartsem.edu/articles.htm )