American Muslims Are Young, Politically Liberal, and Scared

Rare survey data suggests the community’s emerging political identity is being shaped by Millennials.

A young Muslim woman attends a protest against President Trump's travel ban on a handful of Muslim-majority countries. (David Ryder / Reuters)

Muslims may be the religious group that’s most talked about and least understood in the U.S. President Trump has put Islam at the center of his policymaking, making shaky claims about how assimilated Muslims are into American life. And yet, in part because the group is so small, actual data about their religiosity, political leanings, and engagement with American culture is relatively scarce.

A new survey from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, or ISPU, offers a rare look at this changing community. The report covers interviews with nearly 2,400 American residents from diverse religious backgrounds, including roughly 800 Muslims. The data suggest that this rapidly growing group is strongly shaped by a few factors. U.S. Muslims are younger and more liberal than their neighbors. They tend to be fairly religious. And they are extremely anxious about what’s happening in America.

Over the past decade, the Muslim community has grown significantly. According to the Pew Research Center, their share of the U.S. population more than doubled between 2007 and 2014. The group now makes up roughly 1 percent of the populace.

Muslim identity has evolved along with their population size. George W. Bush-era conventional wisdom held that Muslims were a natural constituency for the Republican Party. By the 2016 election, that had radically changed: ISPU found that only 15 percent of Muslims in their survey wanted Trump to win over Hillary Clinton in November, including those who are not eligible to vote.

Given Trump’s often-hostile rhetoric on Islam, it’s not surprising that Muslims overwhelmingly preferred Clinton. But their preferences were even further left than that: In a choice between Trump, Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, 27 percent of all Muslim respondents preferred the failed Democratic primary challenger. Among people under 30, the figure was even higher, at 40 percent.

This is what’s most distinctive about American Muslims—not how liberal they are, but how young they are. ISPU estimates that 37 percent of voting-age Muslims in America are under 30, and 80 percent are under 50. These figures do not include children under 18.

Muslim Americans Are Extremely Young
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Since November, Muslims in America seem to have gone through a political awakening. Many have started giving more money to their mosques and community centers, and others have joined, donated to, or volunteered with a civic organization for the first time.

Among young Muslims in particular, this political engagement seems to be focused on civil rights. Perceptions of discrimination based on race or religion are fairly common: 38 percent of Muslims under 30 reported experiencing religious bigotry regularly or occasionally, and a little less than one-third had regularly or occasionally experienced instances of racial bias. This was an especially common experience among the young: Muslims over 50 were significantly less likely than those under 50 to report experiencing these kinds of discriminatory acts. Compared to their elders, young Muslims are also more likely to see bigotry, discrimination, and civil rights as the number one issue facing their country: 36 percent of respondents under 30 said this was the case.

Since the election, roughly one-fifth of young Muslims have made plans to leave the country, if necessary.

In this way, young Muslims are much like others in their generation. They are extremely racially diverse, and their attitudes toward politics, race, and discrimination generally mirror those of other young, ethnic minorities: 72 percent of Muslims in the ISPU survey expressed support for Black Lives Matter, which is in the same ballpark as what all African Americans and Asian Americans said about the group in a June survey from the University of Chicago. They voted at roughly the same rates as their generational peers: 48 percent of eligible Muslims under 30 cast a ballot in November, according to ISPU, compared to 50 percent of all eligible voters under 30, according to research from Tufts University.

But young Muslims are also distinctive in important ways. They’re more likely to have been born in the U.S. than their elders, but many are still immigrants: Roughly 45 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Muslims living in America were born elsewhere. Like their Millennial peers, they’re largely disconnected from religious institutions: Only slightly more than one-third said they attend worship services at least once a week. But unlike other Millennials, young Muslims are also extremely likely to affirm the importance of religion: 91 percent of Muslims said this was the case, compared to 56 percent of people under 30 in the general public. While older Muslims are just as likely as other Americans over 50 to say their faith matters to them, younger Muslims feel very different about religion than their generational peers.

Young Muslims Tend to Be More Religious Than Their Peers
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Muslim political identity is increasingly being formed in the context of fear. Since the 2016 election, roughly one-fifth of Muslims under 30 have made plans to leave the country, if necessary. Nearly half of young Muslims say they fear for their personal safety because of groups like neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or the Ku Klux Klan. Muslims, overall, are experiencing more anxiety about safety than any other religious or non-religious group, according to ISPU’s survey. The only surveyed group that even comes close are Jews.

The Muslim community in the Trump era will be led by the young, whose lives are increasingly defined by their political environment. Because Muslim Millennials are so unusual among their peers, bringing experiences of faith and diverse national backgrounds to their civic engagement, they have the chance to offer a distinctive voice. The question, now, is how much that voice will change with their generation, blending into a sea of calls for an end to discrimination.