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Window into 'hearts and minds' of Muslims

Poll: They are a moderate, mainstream American minority


By Hesham A. Hassaballa

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 the world."

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 Britain.

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 humanity.

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 "American first."

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, 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 suicide terrorists.

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.



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