There are many ways to read a new survey by PEW on Muslims in America, and as I was reading it I realized that I can’t avoid reading it the Jewish way. That is, reading it and keeping an eye on the similarities and differences between Muslims and Jews in America (to a lesser extent, I was also looking at how American Muslims differ from Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East).
The survey is almost 200 pages long, so I suppose not everybody is going to read it in full. For you – Jewish non-readers (and possibly some readers) of the survey – I have a few highlights that I found interesting.
As the JTA reported – this was the headline they chose – Muslims in America are lesser in number than Jews but grow much faster. “Pew found that there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, a little more than 1 percent of the population. U.S. Jews, by contrast, stand at 5.3 million — around 2 percent of all Americans.” The difference in growth is due to two main things: birthrate (Jews do not have many children) and immigration (most Muslims are new comers – they have a much larger pool of immigrants to draw from). In a previous study, PEW predicted that by 2050 there will be more Muslims than Jews in America. Of course, this will only happen if the current immigration patterns continue.
Until that happens, Muslims feel like a part of the American mainstream less than Jews do. 62% of Muslims think “the American people as a whole do not see Islam as part of mainstream American society.” They hear the talk about Judeo-Christian culture, and identify their religion’s absence from this (problematic) term. Pew reports that, indeed, a plurality of U.S. adults (50%) say they do not see Islam as part of mainstream American society. Muslims are still the group toward which Americans feel the least “warmth,” but an uptick “in positive feelings toward Muslims is notable.” The warmth gap, as measured by Pew’s “thermometer” of feelings was 23 degrees three years ago; now it is 19 degrees. But Jews are still at the top, and Muslims at the bottom.
Muslims are devout in practicing their religion, and they do not intermarry. Of course, all of the above is connected. But the story is hardly about the level of religiosity vs. the level of intermarriage. Two things have to be considered as we compare these two populations. One – Muslims are immigrants. When Jews were immigrants they also did not intermarry as much as they do now. Two – Muslims are a less coherent group than Jews. That is, because Islam is a religion and Judaism is not. It is the culture and religion of a people. Comparing the two groups is comparing apples and oranges.
If an American Jew hardly practices the “religious” part of Judaism, but travels to Israel every year, helps Jewish immigrants in the US, sends a letter to the newspaper protesting anti-Semitism in Hungary – we’d consider him an engaged Jew. The measures applied to Muslims are almost all “religious” in nature. Do they pray, do they follow the Quran, do they eat Halal food? Most Muslims in America (85%) think that believing in God is essential to being Muslim. Most Jews (68%) said that not believing in God is compatible with being Jewish.
Jews were asked a lot about Israel. Why? Because they are a people, and their homeland is Israel. Muslims were not asked about a specific country. Why? Because they are people who come from many countries and do not share a “homeland.” In fact, one of the most important things to know about the Muslim population in America is how diverse it is. “No single country accounts for more than 15% of adult Muslim immigrants to the United States (15% are from Pakistan). The countries with the next-highest totals are Iran (11% of Muslim immigrants), India (7%), Afghanistan (6%), Bangladesh (6%), Iraq (5%), Kuwait (3%), Syria (3%) and Egypt (3%).”
As you compare Muslims and Jews (apples and oranges) you see that some questions in the Pew survey that Jews tended to think were of great importance, are really quite vague. “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish” – thus the Pew report on Jews began when it was released in 2013. Some ink was spilled in an attempt to make this into proof of the Jewish community’s strength and vitality. Well – Muslims are even prouder: “Pride in being Muslim is nearly universal among U.S. Muslims, 97% of whom ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ agree that they are proud to be Muslim.” And of course, it is good that everybody is “proud,” but in context it seems quite meaningless.
Subgroups – especially the one of black Muslims – merit special attention. There is a measure of alienation among these groups that is worrying. “U.S.-born black Muslims are less likely than other U.S.-born Muslims to say they have a lot in common with most Americans, and they are more likely than all other U.S. Muslims to say natural conflict exists between the teachings of Islam and democracy… [they] are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America.”
Muslims feel – they know – that they suffer more discrimination than members of some other groups. They complain about it, they worry because of it, they are clearly not happy thinking about it – and still, the overall tone of the report about them is not at all pessimistic. They are growing in numbers, they believe in the political system, they accept the supposed American deal – work hard, progress in life. Some of them are radicalized. But a clear majority integrate into society with vigor. One can only hope that one day more Muslims around the world will be like the Muslims in America.