Daniel Martin Varisco: Muslims on the American Landscape





[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a 143 page report, downloadable here, surveying the changing religious landscape of the United States. Based on interviews with some 35,000 individuals and drawing on earlier Pew research specifically on Muslims in America, this report is well worth reading. The findings are suggestive of the decline of strait-laced Puritan and venomous WASP America. Indeed, it seems that the United States is on the verge of losing its Christian Protestant edge, at least by direct affiliation. There has also been a dramatic decline in Catholicism, offset in large part by the fact that twice as many recent immigrants are Catholic rather than Protestant. One of the main findings is that Americans have taken on the habit of changing religions. “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether,” conclude the authors. A full quarter of respondents between the ages of 18-20 are not affiliated with any organized religion. “Honk if you love Jesus” is being bumped off the sticker wars and overrun by “Our Father, who art in Walmart.”

To be sure, the Christian veneer of the United States will ensure “In God We Trust” on our mammon for some time to come. Over 78% of Americans self-identify as Christian, the largest block being the amorphous, and now apparently porous, Protestants and the politically courted Evangelicals constituting the largest Christian segment (26%), just a little larger than the total percentage of Catholics (24%). The 1.7 % of Americans who follow the Joseph Smith/Brigham Young (as opposed to the New Orleans) saints (that most people dub Mormons) accounts in part for the fact that Mitt Romney is not the Republican candidate this year. For a reality check on minority status, the same percentage (1.7) of Americans follow Judaism. Islam is way down the list at 0.6%, slightly less than the number of Buddhists (0.7%), but almost double the number of New Age enthusiasts at 0.4 %). Please keep in mind that these figures only refer to “adults” of the age of 18 and over. Since so many Muslims are young, there are in fact many more Muslims overall (as there are many more Christians) than this figure suggests.

In an NPR interview this morning, Luis Lugo, expressed surprise that so many Americans are leaving the faith of their fathers (and mothers, of course). But perhaps he should bone up on his French: plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Or, to give it a pragmatic cultural spin: the more some things change, the more all things change. In a society in which most children do not follow the same profession as their parents, do not consider musical “oldies” to be from the same decade and, as the Obama craze suggests, do not vote as their parents, why should it be surprising that our consumer approach to life should cover our souls searching as well. The audience reach of massive Megachurches and televised evangelism is postmodernly Borg-like. In part people change religions because they can, but certainly the constant competitive converting plays a vital role. Given that few popular religions are tolerant enough to let people choose whatever religion they want, or none at all, shopping for God or morality is just another way of truly being American.

But where does all this leave Muslims in America? The report does not provide many details on Muslim communities, but I did find the following relevant points:

“Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married (78% and 71%, respectively) and to be married to someone of the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively).”

“Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one-in-five Mormon adults and 15% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.”

“In sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.”

“Muslims (0.6% of the overall adult population) fall primarily into two traditions: Half of the Muslims in the U.S. identify as Sunni and 16% are Shi’a; one in three, however, either say they are affiliated with a different Muslim group or describe themselves as ‘just a Muslim’”

Reading through the whole report, beyond the introductory findings, is well worth the time. Much has been said about the reported flood of conversions to Islam after the tragedy of 9/11, as though Bin Laden in an ironic way really did do the work of Allah. One of the interesting findings is that 40% of the Muslims polled are converts from another religion that they grew up in. Contrast this to Hindus, of which only 10% have come from outside the faith. So where are these Muslim converts coming from? Over half of these were raised in Protestant churches (a fear expressed long ago by Martin Luther) and only 10% cross over from Catholicism (a legacy perhaps of the divide created by the Crusades). On the other hand, 70% of Americans raised as Muslims stay Muslim, a retention rate slightly better than Catholics (68%), but a little below Jews (76%). In pragmatic terms, the supposed rush to Islam is better seen as a small stream with fluctuating current rather than a tsunami; the overall number of individuals self-identified as Muslims is still barely on the charts in the American religious landscape. The American dar abyad is not about to be non-white-washed into the territory of dar al-harb.

One of the more illuminating findings is that the percentage of adult Muslims under the age of 30 is quite high (23%) relative to other groups, moreso than Jews (20%), but slightly less than Mormons (24%). Only 7% of Muslims are 65 or older, compared to 20% of Protestants and 22% of Jews. This also reflects the dynamics of a largely recent immigrant community. Along the racial divide, which is hardly as black and white as it used to be, about 10% of blacks identify as Muslim, the overwhelming majority of African Americans being Protestant, mainly from historically black churches. Among American Muslims overall 37% are white, 24% black, 20% Asian, 4% Latino and and 15% dumped into the ethnic limbo of “other/mixed race.” This is again a reflection of the large number of Muslims who arrived in the United States as immigrants; some 65% of American Muslims were born outside the country. Of these immigrant Muslims, half came from North Africa and the Middle East and 28% from South Asia. About one quarter of all immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East are Muslim, while 12% of all Asian immigrants identify as Muslim. Some 21% of American Muslims have less than a high school education, reflecting again the large number of immigrants, which is higher even than the percentage of members of historically black churches. On the basis of high income levels Muslims share bragging rights with Mormons; in each case 16% have annual incomes over $100,000. Mitt Romney, meet a guy named Muhammad who sells more than Persian rugs. But 35% earn less than $30,000 per year, worse than Catholics (31%), and nowhere near as well as American Jews (14%).

What do all these statistics mean? The data on Muslims are less trustworthy than on the Christian groups for the obvious reason of sample size, but it is also not clear how representative the sample size of Muslims really is. Groups who are outside the mainstream, and particularly those who have a reason to be suspicious of opinion takers, do not fare well in statistical sweeps. But at least there is a set of data that can be played with. Muslims are part of the American landscape. Hopefully the American public, and media, can learn to see their presence as part of the system, like Abdul Kareem al-Jabbar on a basketball court, and leave the images of bearded clerics and veiled women overseas.

[For more information on Muslims in America, start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_United_States.]



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