2017-09-03 16:10:03 UTC
America's melting pot and America's Muslims
by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
September 3, 2017
THE STORY of American pluralism began with the migration of Puritan
separatists, who came to the New World seeking a haven where they could
practice their faith as they saw fit. The Puritans didn't show much
tolerance toward subsequent newcomers practicing other faiths, such as
Quakers and Baptists. But those religions put down roots, and the
intolerance evaporated over time.
That became the pattern. Though religious diversity is one of the hallmarks
of American life, believers from less-familiar traditions typically start
out facing resentment and mistrust. After a while, however, those minority
creeds and churches grow accepted and comfortable and become part of the
nation's religious and cultural mosaic.
We don't often think about it, but it's an amazing phenomenon. In a world
torn by religious bitterness, the United States has repeatedly managed to
assimilate clashing faiths. It was true for Quakers and Baptists in the 18th
century, for Catholics in the 19th, and for Mormons and Jews in the 20th. It
is proving true yet again in this century for American Muslims.
The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a detailed survey
of Muslims in the United States — the third it has conducted since 2007. It
is no secret that many Americans, especially since 9/11, have come to regard
Muslims with fear or suspicion. During his presidential campaign, Donald
Trump fueled that animus, decrying the "great hatred towards Americans by
large segments of the Muslim population" and demanding a "total and complete
shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States.
Yet for all that, the Pew surveys make clear, US Muslims are replicating the
age-old trajectory of religious minority communities: They adopt American
values, reject fundamentalism, and form ties of friendship and love across
In the latest poll, an overwhelming 92 percent of Muslims agree with the
patriotic statement "I am proud to be an American." When asked how much they
feel they have in common with most Americans, 60 percent of Muslims say "a
lot" and another 28 percent say "some." Only 36 percent say that all or most
of their friends are fellow Muslims, a striking drop from the 49 percent who
said so in the 2011 survey — and far less than the 95 percent of Muslims who
say so in other countries.
Islamist fanaticism and terror have been among the world's intractable
problems for decades; the scholar Daniel Pipes has estimated that as many as
15 percent of Muslims worldwide support radical Islam. There is no simple
solution to the problem of militant Islamist extremism, and too many
Americans — from Boston to Fort Hood to San Bernardino to Orlando — have
been among its victims.
But as the Pew data show, the Muslim community in America is the most
religiously tolerant and socially liberal Islamic population in the world.
And Muslims in America, far from sanctioning deliberate violence against
civilians, are actually more likely than the general public to oppose it in
In Pew's latest survey, 59 percent of Americans overall said that targeting
or killing civilians for a "political, social, or religious cause" can never
be justified. Opposition among US Muslims, however, was 17 percentage points
higher — three-fourths of Muslim respondents opposed such killings. The Cato
Institute's David Bier suggests that American Muslims are so strongly
opposed to religion-based terrorism for the obvious reason that Muslims
worldwide are its most frequent victims.
Perhaps it is for the same reason that Muslims in the United States are
considerably more likely to reject fundamentalist or monolithic
interpretations of Islam.
While many U.S. Muslims attend mosque and pray regularly, majorities say
that there is more than one way to interpret their religion and that
traditional understandings of Islam need to be reinterpreted to address
About 43 percent of US Muslims say they attend religious services at least
once a week; 65 percent say religion is very important to them. For US
Christians, the numbers are comparable — 47 percent say they go to church at
least weekly, and 68 percent consider their religion very important in their
lives. Contrary to the popular view of Muslims as dogmatic, however, a large
majority of those living in America take a latitudinarian approach to Islam
and the Koran. Pew found that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) "openly
acknowledge that there is room for multiple interpretations" of their
religion" and just over half of all US Muslims agree that "traditional
understandings of Islam must be reinterpreted to reflect contemporary
issues." Polls of Muslims worldwide have found overwhelming majorities
supporting a literal interpretation of the Koran; in America, less than half
of Muslims do.
Similarly, a majority of Muslims in this country reject the view that Sharia
should be a source (let alone the source) for national legislation. In
France and Britain, by contrast, majorities of Muslims insist that Sharia
should be the primary law of the land. When asked if there is "a natural
conflict between the teachings of Islam and democracy," 65 percent of
American Muslims say no.
All this is a wonderful affirmation of the power of the American melting
pot — E Pluribus Unum. It is a reminder of the fundamental difference
between the blood-and-soil nationalism that prevails in Europe and the
American conviction that nationhood is grounded in equality and natural
During the debate on independence in 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia
declared that liberty in America must be universal, embracing "the Mahomitan
[Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion." The
potency of that embrace has not diminished. Immigrants of every faith still
come to America, and become Americans.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).