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Muslims in America: Demographics and beliefs

With the swarms of reporters attracted and reams of op-eds launched by today’s controversial House hearing on the American Muslim community, it’s worth noting some of the more interesting – and perhaps surprising – data that exists about the small but diverse population of Muslims in America.

Thursday's hearing, titled “Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response,” prompted outrage from critics who said the committee unfairly targeted the Muslim community as a whole rather than focusing on individuals recruited by terrorist organizations.

In his opening statement, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King cited a 2009 Pew Research Center poll indicating that 15 percent of American Muslims under age 30 believe that  suicide bombings can often or sometimes be justified. (That’s compared to just 6 percent for Muslims in the U.S. who are over 30.)

Here are some other noteworthy statistics from the Pew Research Center’s work:

  • According to the 2009 study, Muslims in the United States are much more likely to say that suicide bombings are never justified in defense of Islam than Muslims in other countries. Almost eight in 10 American Muslims say that such attacks are never defensible, compared to 70 percent of Muslims in Britain, 64 percent of Muslims in France, and just 17 percent of Muslims who live in the Palestinian territory.
  • Per Pew's national survey of Muslims in 2007, Muslims constituted about 0.6% of the U.S. adult population. (Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States vary widely, although most national surveys indicate that they make up less than one percent of Americans over 18 years old.) Nearly two-thirds of the population is made up of first generation immigrants, while about 35 percent were born in the United States.  Almost four in ten describe themselves as white, 26 percent as black, and 20 percent Asian.
  • Seven in 10 Muslim Americans say that they prefer a bigger government that provides more services rather than a smaller government that does less. Only about 11 percent of Muslims affiliated themselves with the Republican Party, while about 60 percent said that they identify with or lean towards the Democratic Party. But Muslim Americans are much more likely than the public at large to say that homosexuality should be discouraged; only 27 percent say homosexuality should be accepted, compared to about half of Americans overall who say the same thing.
  • Muslim Americans are more optimistic about upward mobility than the public at large. Over 70 percent of Muslim Americans say that “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they work hard.”  That’s slightly higher than the 64 percent of the general public that agrees with that statement.
  • The American public at large is divided on whether or not Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence. About 40 percent of Pew survey respondents in February 2011 said that the Islamic faith tends to foster violence more than other religions, while 42 percent said it does not. Staunch Republicans were the most likely to link Islam and violence, with two-thirds of self-identified conservatives saying that Islam promotes violence more than other religions.