American mosques make Muslims less radical

Via John Sides at the Monkey Cage, a study from the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey finds that the most religious American Muslims are more likely than the least religious Muslims to take active roles in community politics (rallies, letter-writing campaigns, voting, political donations, etc.) and follow national political news more carefully.

The authors explain:

Finally, we find those with high levels of religiosity are overwhelmingly likely to believe that Islam is compatible with political participation in the United States. While 77% of those with the lowest levels of religiosity feel Islam is compatible with political involvement in America, 95% of those who are most religious feel Islam is compatible with American politics.

Despite the popularized idea that Muslims are radicalized around the country in mosques, we find that mosques help Muslims integrate into US society, and in fact have a very productive role in bridging the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. This is a finding in social science that is consistent with decades of research on other religious groups such as Jews, Protestants and Catholics where church attendance and religiosity has been proven to result in higher civic engagement and support for core values of the American political system. Likewise, mosques are institutions that should be encouraged to function as centers of social and political integration in America.

This will undoubtedly surprise Rep. Peter King, but it comports with previous research and is really not that surprising.

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So, if I understand the conclusion: division, paradoxically, unites? After all, if muslims, xtians and atheists were not divided, then they'd not need to unite, but apparently, going to a mosque, something that xtians, athests, etc wouldn't do because they believed it right, and thus is a division. Mutatis mutandi for xtians and athiests. ;)

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I'm pretty skeptical of the authors' conclusions--they don't seem to follow from their data.

Yes, I think they have good evidence that mosque-involved Muslims are also more politically involved. But "radical" is not the opposite of "politically involved." For instance, the Amish are neither radical nor politically involved, while the John Birch Society, the Christian Dominionist movement and the Black Panther Party are/were both radical and politically involved.

Generally, "radical" in American political jargon means either "favoring a complete overthrow of the current political system" (the traditional meaning) or simply "politically extreme." Combining that with the authors' claims about social integration, it seems to me that three key questions are:

1) Are strongly religious Muslims less likely to be politically extreme?
2) Are strongly religious Muslims less likely to support radical or violent means of political change?
3) Are strongly religious Muslims more likely to be well-integrated into American society--not just the political system?

The MAPOS data doesn't really bear on any of these questions, so far as I can see, nor does the data from Barreto & Dana (2008). On the other hand, a Pew survey from 2007 produced relevant information--most of which seems to indicate that the answers to 1), 2) and 3) are all in the negative.

(In the following, religious commitment is assessed by frequency of mosque attendance, frequency of prayers and whether the respondent says that religion is "very important" in their life. So it isn't a pure measure of mosque involvement; on the other hand, most of the results reported also hold true if you look only at mosque attendance rate.)

Relevant to 1): Strongly religious Muslims are more likely to think that homosexuality should be discouraged rather than accepted by society, and more likely to deny that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by groups of Arabs.

Relevant to 2): Strongly religious Muslims tend to have a less unfavorable view of al Qaeda. (However, only 5% of US Muslims actually have a favorable opinion of al Qaeda, and only 15% think suicide bombing can ever be justified against civilian targets.)

Relevant to 3): Strongly religious Muslims are more likely to think of themselves as Muslims first and Americans second. They're also more likely to think that Muslim immigrants should remain distinct from US society rather than adopt American customs, and less likely to think it's ok for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim.

So it doesn't appear that religious commitment or mosque involvement helps Muslims become less radical or better integrated into society. But does that mean that mosques are particularly good at making Muslims more radical or separatist?

Almost certainly not. In the first place, the general trends described above are just as true of American Christians. Christians who attend church more often are more socially conservative and more supportive of the Iraq war. They're more likely to say that there's a conflict between religion and modern society, and that popular culture conflicts with their values. They're more likely to say that the US is a Christian nation, that you must be Christian to be truly American, and that the Bible should be a more important influence on US law than the will of the people.

So if there's a radicalizing, separatist influence here at all, then Christian churches are just as good at it as mosques.

Second, the results for US Muslims are heavily skewed by one particular population: native-born black Muslims, who make up a quarter of the Muslim population. Compared to either foreign-born Muslims or non-black native-born Muslims, black Muslims are the most socially conservative, the most likely to say that Muslims should remain separate from US society and avoid marrying non-Muslims, the most likely to report religious discrimination, the most likely to say they're Muslims first and Americans second, the most likely to have a favorable opinion of al Qaeda, and the most religiously involved. (Conversely, non-black native-born Muslims are the most liberal, the least separatist, and the most unfavorable toward al Qaeda. This group is mostly made up of second- or third-generation immigrants, and white converts.)

So if you're actually worried about radical Islam in the US--and that sits way down on my list of worries, personally--it doesn't look like you should focus on mosques, or immigrants, or Arabs, or anything like that. Rather, you should focus on the fact that the black Muslim movement has a significant separatist stream, and a radical stream within that--a very small radical stream, of course, but considerably larger than in any other Muslim demographic. And then you should consider the fact that the most radical black converts to Islam are almost always men converted in prison. (An increasing number of Latino prisoners are converting as well.) And then you should maybe wonder if the problem--insofar as there is one--is less to do with the Koran or the basic tenets of Islam, and more to do with the fact that we have over a million black and Latino men currently sitting in jail. Many of whom already have very good reasons to dislike the US government, to feel alienated from mainstream American society, and to condone the use of violence as a political tool.

Maybe we could, y'know, do something about that.

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By Anton Mates (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink