How Being Muslim In America Has Changed Since 9/11

Read the results of the Pew Research Center study on Muslims In America.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 55 percent of Muslim Americans believe that it is harder to be a Muslim in the United States since 9/11. Pew's director of survey research Scott Keeter shares the results of the Center's Muslim American Survey.

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NEAL CONAN, host: After September the 11th, many Muslim-Americans said they faced increased scrutiny and discrimination as their religion and their culture became the subject of intense public debate. According to a recent Pew Research Center study on Muslims in America, 55 percent say it's hard to be a Muslim in the United States 10 years after. But the report also finds no signs that alienation has increased or additional support for extremism. We'd like to hear from Muslims in the audience today. What's changed for you since September the 11th?

Our number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Scott Keeter joins us from the Pew Research Center, where's he's director of survey research. Nice to have you back.

SCOTT KEETER: Very nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And interestingly, Muslim-Americans say - you found in your first report on Muslim-Americans four years ago that most were mainstream and moderate, and you show no change to that.

KEETER: That's right. We were interested in taking another look at this population, especially as the anniversary, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches. And, of course, in the interim, there have been several incidents of either actual attacks by homegrown Muslims, or thwarted terrorist attacks. And we wondered if we could see any registration, either of increased support for extremism in the Muslim-American community or greater concern about extremism. And so we wanted to go back to this population. And we had other questions that we wanted to ask that we didn't have time to ask when we first surveyed them in 2007.

CONAN: And interestingly, there is - a significant minority do see support for extremism in their community, but it is a significant minority.

KEETER: Yes. It's a little hard to know how to put the numbers into context. Sixty percent of Muslim-Americans who we interviewed said that they are either very or somewhat concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S. But 21 percent say they actually think there is at least a fair amount of extremism in the Muslim-American community. You know, that's not a majority, but it's not zero, either. We asked some other questions about this, as well, to try to gauge, you know, how Muslim-Americans are navigating both the scrutiny that they're receiving and their own concerns about terrorism.

One of the interesting things that we found is that a significant number of them, almost half, 48 percent, say they don't think that Muslim leaders in the United States have done as much as they should to speak out against extremists in the Muslim community. On the other hand, a majority of the people we talked with said they did think that the Muslim-American community is cooperating enough with law enforcement efforts to investigate extremism.

CONAN: It's interesting. You said 21 percent of Muslim-Americans say there's a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism in their own community. That is half the number in the general population who think there's support for extremism in Muslim-American communities. The rest of us think there's a lot more than the Muslims do.

KEETER: That's right. We asked a number of the questions in this survey of the general public to try to get a sense of whether the public and Muslim-Americans have parallel views. In some cases, they may. But in this case, the general public sees much more extremism in the Muslim-American community. And a significant number of people in the general public think that extremism is increasing. Whereas when we asked Muslim-Americans do you think that there is growing support here, most of them said no.

CONAN: And then on the more subjective, often, matters, significant numbers report being looked at with suspicion and being called offensive names. I don't think that's too subjective. Twenty-one percent report being singled out by airport security, 13 percent being singled out by other law enforcement. Yet, interestingly, there is a big growth in the number who say that U.S. government anti-terrorism policies are sincere.

KEETER: Yes. There are a couple of things that changed over the course of four years since we first did this study. One of them is that sense, that American foreign policy, in terms of terrorism around the world is legitimate. Now, we're still not talking about a majority, but, basically, Muslim-Americans are evenly divided on that question, whereas in 2007, they overwhelming did not think that the war - so-called war on terrorism was a sincere effort.

But that goes along, I think, with the change in feelings about the political leadership in the country. In 2007, the vast majority of Muslim-Americans, nearly 70 percent, disapproved of the job that George W. Bush was doing as president. An even higher percentage this time say that they approve of the job that Barack Obama is doing as president.

So we certainly have more of a sense of political comfort right now among Muslim-Americans than we did four years ago, and that seems to be reflected in at least some attitudes towards policies.

CONAN: We want to get some listeners involved in the conversation. We want to hear from the Muslim-Americans in our audience today. What's changed for you since 9/11? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Wale(ph) is with us from Kansas City. I hope I'm pronouncing that right.

WALE: Yes, yes. Very good. Thank you very much. Well, in terms of what's - so I'm a Muslim-American. I'm originally Egyptian-American. I grew up here in the U.S. my entire life. And so, obviously, I consider myself American through and through, culturally and otherwise. And I have to say, you know, in terms of what's changed for me is, you know, I - just to give you a simple example, my wife wears the hijab, or the, you know, the head scarf, or whatever term you like to use.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WALE: And I got to tell you, it's - you know, just to go out to dinner sometimes is very interesting, because, you know, you get a lot of stares. You get a lot of looks, and some people are just flat-out rude. And, you know, it's - you just get a lot of unwanted attention, and I think it's increased, more so. And, in a way, I kind of don't blame people, in a way, because the media is - in my opinion, there's a constant barrage on scaring people, on - people get scared of Muslims like me, and I'm a working physician here, who's a normal guy with a family.

And the thing is - just to give you an example - you had a recent Republican debate, okay, and you had Newt Gingrich and you had that gentleman, Mr. Cain, from Godfather's Pizza. So they were on the stage, and each of them - and maybe someone else I forgot - said that they would public - or they would make a Muslim-American take a loyalty oath to work in their administration.

Now, I don't know about anybody else, but, to me, that's an incredible statement. I don't know how, in a mainstream fashion, you can publicly say you would make a religious group that is American take a loyalty oath and treat them differently than you would any other religious groups. I think that's an incredible statement. And I think things like that, as well as many other things, scare people. And I don't know how that can be helpful when you're talking about this issue.

CONAN: I believe that was Herman Cain who made that remark, about a few months ago, I do believe it was. And as - Wale, as you go out in your community, though, as there are more Muslim-Americans - and this is a growing percentage of the American population - as more women wear the head scarf, clearly people are going to get used to it.

WALE: Well, I hope so. I mean, I think there are two things here, actually. So one thing that I'm often told is, well, look. Other religious groups are going through the same thing. Catholics went through the same thing. Jews - those of the Jewish faith earlier in the century, they went through the same thing. So, in many ways, you just have to pay your dues. So - and at some point, yes, like you mentioned, people will get used to it. That's fine.

On the other hand, I would say this: I don't want to get rounded up in a camp one day, all right? And when I hear these statements being made publicly in a mainstream fashion, I have to tell you, it worries me. I just want to have a family and work. I don't want to be victimized because of what leaders are saying, which is outrageous - which are, at times, outrageous. So I really don't know how to feel about that, to tell you the truth.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

WALE: Thank you.

CONAN: Scott Keeter?

KEETER: Yes, Neal. You know, there are a couple of interesting things there. One is that we find that a majority of Muslim women that we spoke with said that they do wear the hijab or the head cover at least some of the time when they're out in public. And so it is fairly common, and it hasn't declined over the four years since we first surveyed them.

But on this question of assimilation, we devoted quite a bit of attention to that in this study. We asked American Muslims if they feel that Muslims who come to the United States from overseas want to adopt American customs and blend in, as it were. Or do they want to be distinct from American society? And the majority, 56 percent, said that Muslims want to assimilate. And we find it - in fact, when you look at things like friendship patterns, that most Muslim-Americans have non-Muslim friends. In fact, many of them have lots of non-Muslims friends. And in terms of fidelity to American values, especially getting ahead through hard work, Muslim-Americans are more likely to say that one can get ahead in this country if you work hard.

And so this is a population that, for the most part, has come to the U.S., like a lot of other immigrant groups, and attempted to fit in in its own way to American culture and society.

CONAN: We're talking with Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, and one of those who worked on the report on Muslim-Americans that's just out. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go next to Deema(ph), Deema with us from Toledo.

DEEMA: Yes, hi. I'm a big fan of the show, a long-time listener. Thank you for having me on your show.

CONAN: Thanks for the kind words.

DEEMA: I was listening before, and I could not listen to the whole conversation when I was on hold for the previous caller. And I'm a Muslim lady that wears hijab. And I agree with him. I hate to be labeled by that, sort of, label. And wearing the hijab and going out every day, it makes it harder with the hijab day by day when I listen to the news. I started not listening to the news for some time. It's just - when I open and, you know, when I watch the news, CNN, Fox News, whatever, MSNBC, and you listen to all these comments, and I'm just like, why? Why are your doing this? And it gets to me.

Like, the second day when I'm going out, I was like, ah, I hope they didn't watch that show. Oh, I hope they didn't watch this. It gets to me sometimes, and I'm, kind of a very friendly person. And when I go out, like to the supermarket or anywhere, I smile when I see somebody staring at me, and I say hello. And most of the people, they say hello back and they would ask me, how are you doing? And I would say, I'm fine. How are you? And I try to reach out to people, but the media is not helping out here. It's very - sadly, they're labeling us with the terrorists, and I hate to get blamed for something I didn't do. I know who did the September 11 were Muslims, but I hate the whole Islam nation get to be blamed for it.

And it worries me for the long term. I have little kids that (unintelligible) - what's going to happen to them later on. I think about it all the time. And I always tell them just to be patient and be polite and try to do a change, like by going out, talking about it, express your feelings about it. It helps a lot when you talk about it with your friends, with your neighbors, with your family. Express your feelings, say what your concerns. But it does worry me a lot and, especially around this time, too.

CONAN: Sure. The next couple of days could be pretty tough.

DEEMA: Kind of. One time, my son came from school crying. He was in - we used to live in Minnesota at that time. And he said, mom, I hate to be blamed for it. He was a fourth-grader. And, mom, this was what happened today at school. This was the books we read. And imagine all the kids in my class were reading about Muslims and they were thinking, I'm from there, then I'm a terrorist. It's been very hard.

CONAN: Deema, thanks for the call. I hope it gets better.

DEEMA: Thank you.

KEETER: We...

CONAN: Go ahead, Scott Keeter.

KEETER: That was a very - the things that I just heard from Deema are very, very reminiscent of things that we heard from our respondents. We ask an open-ended question in this survey: You know, what's the most important problem facing Muslim-Americans? And, you know, if you ask that question to almost anyone in the U.S., the first thing you're going to hear is jobs and the economy. We did not hear that. We heard stereotyping, being considered to be a terrorist and ignorance, the way people think about us.

Two-thirds, almost three-fourths said that they felt that these were things that are most problematic for Muslim-Americans. And yet, at the same time, we found that almost half of Muslim-Americans said that they think the American people are basically friendly toward them. Thirty-two percent said the American people are neutral towards them, and only 16 percent characterized Americans as fundamentally unfriendly.

And when we've interviewed the general public on the subject of Islam and Muslim-Americans, what we have found is that most Americans have a complicated set of attitudes. But we definitely can see that the more people know about Islam or the more that people have had an experience with Muslims in their communities or as friends or otherwise, the more favorable their attitudes are towards them.

CONAN: Here's an email we had from Ridwan(ph) in Toledo: I'm currently a 26-year-old student in medical school. When 9/11 happened, I was a senior in high school that was just starting to form an identity. I had begun to take an immense amount of pride in being an American. But in an instant, I felt kicked out of the American mainstream society. Never did I think that I would see the day where presidential candidates found it politically advantageous to bash Islam and play up fears that we American Muslims were crafting some sort of grand conspiracy to implement Sharia Law.

The last 10 years have taught me that while you can't judge a book by its cover, it seems fair game to judge an entire religion off a few Quranic verses taken out of context. I don't want ignorant bigots to play a role in damaging my American self-identity, but sometimes, it gets difficult to ignore their hateful rants.

And, Scott Keeter, I suspect you to be taking this poll for sometime.

KEETER: Yes. I think we're going to continue to be interested in it, and we certainly, you know, are mindful that, you know, the issue is not just what Muslims think, but what the general public thinks. And we will continue to monitor that. We will.

CONAN: We've posted a link to the Pew's study on Muslim-Americans. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Scott Keeter, thanks for your time.

KEETER: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew Research Center, with us from their offices here in Washington. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with new research that looks in detail at fossils from an ancient hominid. Is it a human ancestor, or an evolutionary dead end? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And this TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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