United Against Bush

In three competitive swing states, Muslim-American voters could make a difference.

What does polling reveal about American Muslims?

They number 1.4 million, about 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. They're very diverse: Nearly two-thirds are foreign-born, but only one-quarter are from Arab countries. (Iran and Pakistan are the leading countries of origin.) Twenty percent are native-born black Muslims.

Like other immigrant groups, Muslims believe in the American work ethic even more strongly than does the nation as a whole. Seventy-one percent of American Muslims endorse the idea that "most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard," compared with 64 percent of the general public. In the view of Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, "The overall message of the Pew Center's findings shows that American Muslims are well integrated, socioeconomically empowered, and civically engaged members of American society—more so than we've seen in our Western European counterparts."

Thirty-two percent of all Americans say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country right now. Satisfaction is a bit higher, 38 percent, among American Muslims. It's higher still, 45 percent, among foreign-born Muslims. However, the survey found one Muslim group in which satisfaction is conspicuously lower: Only 13 percent of black Muslims are satisfied. Their discontent may be as much racial as religious. "To have African-American Muslims express more discontent and disaffection is not surprising to me," said Salaam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "I think those who have come here by choice, as opposed to force, have a different perspective on American pluralism and American politics in general."

The Pew study found a significant source of discontent among young American Muslims. Those under 30 tend to be more religious and more radical than their elders. The most disturbing finding: Among American Muslims under 30, 15 percent think that "suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians" are "often" or "sometimes" justified to defend Islam (11 percent said such acts are "rarely" justified, and 69 percent said they are "never" justified).

In al-Marayati's view, "Muslim students have no support on campus. There is no ability for Muslim students to express their political views in a healthy environment. And, as a result, their views do tend to be more radical." He added, "Does that lead to extremism and terrorism? No, it does not necessarily lead to that. That's a different issue."

Overall, 8 percent of American Muslim respondents said that violence against civilians is "often" or "sometimes" justified. That is less support for violence than Pew found among Muslims in France, Spain, and Britain (15-16 percent). And it's lower than among Muslims in Muslim-dominated countries, such as Jordan (29 percent), Egypt (28 percent), Turkey (17 percent), Pakistan (14 percent), and Indonesia (10 percent).

Despite President Bush's overtures to the Muslim community, American Muslims are deeply at odds with his administration. They are less likely to support the war in Iraq (12 percent, compared with 45 percent of the general public). They're less likely to support the war in Afghanistan (35 percent, compared with 61 percent of the general public). They're less likely to think that the war on terrorism is a "sincere effort to reduce international terrorism" (26 percent of Muslims; 67 percent of the general public).

They are also less likely to support Bush himself. Only 15 percent of American Muslims approve of the job he is doing as president, compared with 35 percent of all Americans. "When you look at the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the impact that our foreign policy is having in the Islamic world, I think it comes as no surprise that there's only 15 percent approval rating of President Bush," Iftikhar said.

Not surprisingly, then, Muslim-American voters tilt strongly Democratic. "Many American Muslims feel that the Democratic Party is more attuned to the true constitutional and legal ideals of equality for all," Iftikhar said. But are there enough Muslim-American voters to make a difference? Actually, there are—in three very competitive swing states: Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.