Window into 'hearts and minds' of Muslims
Poll: They are a moderate, mainstream
July 8, 2007
A recent poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center showed that Muslims in
America are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with
respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around
In other words, exactly what American Muslims have been saying all along.
The assimilation of the Muslim minority is a critical issue, with law
enforcement paying particular attention because an alienated minority is seen as
more susceptible to embracing extremist ideology and violent methods.
This is especially pertinent in Europe. British-born Muslims carried out the
London terrorist bombings two years ago. And the recent failed terror attacks in
London and Glasgow appear to have been the work of Muslim doctors working in
As a Muslim and a physician, I cannot fully describe the shock and anger I feel
about that. My primary duty as a physician is to "do no harm." I lie awake
thinking about the medical problems of my patients. I get up in the middle of
the night to see my hospitalized patients. I live and breathe the Quranic
principle that if anyone saves a life, it is as if he or she has saved all of
So to find that the barbarians behind the recent failed British attacks could be
doctors shook me to the core. If what is alleged is true, they have committed
the ultimate betrayal. It is a betrayal not only of the Islamic principle that
all life is sacrosanct, but also of the primary objective of the medical
profession: the protection and preservation of human life.
When such attacks occur, it is natural to inquire about what factors within the
Muslim community might lead to radicalization. Would that there were a window
into the "hearts and minds" of Muslims to understand how they think and feel.
Enter the Pew research poll.
Among its many findings, the poll showed that 8 percent of American Muslims
believe that "suicide bombing against civilian targets" is "sometimes or often"
justified. Among Muslims age 18 to 29, more than three times that many (26
percent) believe suicide attacks against civilians are "ever justified." In
addition, 47 percent of Muslims see themselves as "Muslim first" as opposed to
Alarmists seized on the poll to suggest that American Muslims are not as
mainstream and moderate as they say.
In an editorial, Investor's Business Daily saw this as evidence that "the
country is embedded with a ticking time bomb of Muslim youth who condone suicide
bombings." Other alarmists wrote similar things, even suggesting that American
Muslims are less than patriotic because almost half believed they are "Muslim
first" rather than "American first."
First of all, the fact that 8 percent of U.S. Muslims believe suicide bombings
against civilian targets are "often or sometimes justified" is concerning, to
say the least. That is 8 percent too many. It is also quite surprising that more
than a quarter of young Muslims believe suicide attacks against civilians are
ever justified. The American Muslim community needs to examine why this is so.
Yet, is there some way to put these findings in perspective? As influential
American Muslim thinker Shahed Amanullah wrote on altmuslim.com, a prominent
Muslim Web site, "one needs to ask non-Muslim Americans the same questions about
terrorism to see where the answers deviate."
In other words, the poll needs a "control" population, which opinion polls
generally are not designed to have. Fortunately, however, a kind of "control"
study does exist in this case.
In December 2006, without much fanfare, the University of Maryland's Program on
International Policy Attitudes released the results of a public opinion poll of
Americans and Iranians simultaneously. In that poll, when asked if "bombing and
other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are justified, 24
percent of Americans (three times the number of American Muslims) said those
types of attacks are "often/sometimes" justified. That was also more than twice
the number of Iranians who answered the same (11 percent).
Furthermore, far fewer Americans in the Maryland poll believed attacks against
civilians are "never justified" compared with U.S. Muslims (46 percent to 78
percent) in the Pew poll. In addition, in a Pew Global Attitudes Project
national survey conducted in May 2006, 42 percent of Americans saw themselves as
"Christian first" as opposed to "American first," which is almost as many as
American Muslims (47 percent).
What does all this mean? It is valid to argue that these three polls have
nothing to do with each other. Nevertheless, the results of the University of
Maryland's poll show that, if anything, American Muslims are much less accepting
of violence against civilians than are their non-Muslim compatriots. This should
serve to discredit the alarmists who used the Pew poll results to insinuate, if
not outright state, that American Muslims are a "fifth column" of clandestine
Moreover, why is it that 24 percent of Americans believed intentional attacks
against civilians are often or sometimes justified? No one suggested that this
was due to religious fanaticism, which is assumed in the case of American
Muslims. What does this say about American society today? Is there so much
violence in the media and popular culture that Americans have become
desensitized? It is important food for thought.
The bottom line is this: The Pew poll confirmed that American Muslims are a
moderate, mainstream minority. Although some Muslims seem to be sympathetic to
violence against the innocent, they hold these sympathies in a far smaller
proportion than their non-Muslim neighbors.
My hope is that the Pew poll results help promote better understanding of the
American Muslim community. When placed in perspective, they help quiet the cries
of those who wish to foment fear and distrust of an entire segment of the
American population. If we heed these cries, it will only serve to tear at the
fabric of our society.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago pulmonologist and writer.