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October 23, 2008

Muslim Americans in Step With American Public on

Political Engagement, Social Issues

DURHAM, N.C. -- Misperceptions about Islam and Muslims have been a centerpiece of the 2008 presidential campaign, with Democratic candidate Barack Obama issuing repeated denials that he is a Muslim.

Most recently, former Secretary of State Colin Powell rebuked those responsible for spreading the Obama rumor, adding, "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that's not America."

Duke University sociologist Jen'nan Ghazal Read says misperceptions about Muslim Americans are all too common, despite the fact that seven in 10 Americans admit they know very little about Islam. In an upcoming article in the fall issue of Contexts magazine, Read says the more personal dimensions of religious identity have little influence on the political attitudes or behaviors of Muslim Americans, contrary to popular belief linking Islamic devotion to political fanaticism.

"Clearly, many Americans are convinced Muslim Americans pose some kind of threat to American society," Read writes. "Two widespread assumptions fuel these fears. First, that there's only one kind of Islam and one kind of Muslim, both characterized by violence and anti-democratic tendencies. Second, that being a Muslim is the most salient identity for Muslim Americans. ... Research on Muslim Americans themselves supports neither of these assumptions."

A Carnegie scholar studying the economic, political and cultural integration of Muslim and Arab Americans, Read says Muslims Americans are highly diverse and politically integrated, and in step with the rest of the American public on today's most divisive political issues.

Read finds the majority of both Muslim Americans and the general public oppose gay marriage and favor increased federal funding for the needy. According to her research, Muslim Americans are slightly more conservative than the American public with regard to abortion and are generally "diverse, well-integrated, and largely mainstream in their attitudes, values, and behaviors."

Specifically, Read notes that Muslim Americans are not uniformly religious and devout. Like Christians, Jews and members of other faith groups, Muslims represent widely varying levels of religious devotion, mosque attendance and frequency of regular prayer.

In addition, Read says data show that being a Muslim is less important for politics than "how Muslim you are, how much money you make, whether you're an African-American Muslim or an Arab-American Muslim, and whether you are a man or a woman."

On average, Muslim Americans tend to be highly educated, politically conscious and fluent in English. On average, this group shares similar socio-economic characteristics with the general U.S. population in terms of education, income and employment: one-fourth has a bachelor's degree or higher; one-fourth lives in households of $75,000 or more; the majority are employed.

Yet, despite the similarities between Muslim Americans and the general public, "we can't deny that the Muslim American experience, particularly since 9/11, has been 'exceptional' in a country marked by a declining salience of religious boundaries and increasing acceptance of religious difference," Read concludes in her article. "Muslim Americans have been largely excluded from this ecumenical trend."

"If we're going to face our nation's challenges in a truly democratic way, we need to move past the fear that Muslim Americans are un-American so we can bring them into the national dialogue."


Editor's Note: Jen'nan Ghazal Read can be reached for additional comment at 949-266-4249 or jennan.read@duke.edu. A copy of her article is available through Jackie Cooper at jcooper@asanet.org.

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About Contexts
Contexts (www.contexts.org), a magazine published by the American Sociological Association, provides the lay public with an accessible and thought-provoking look at modern life through the lens of the research and expertise of prominent U.S. sociologists. Edited by a team from the University of Minnesota's sociology department, the magazine offers provocative sociological ideas and research to examine everyday experiences through feature articles, book reviews, cultural analysis and engaging photography.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.