Pew Poll of American Muslims: Substance Behind the Hot Buttons

A hot-button question in a unique poll of American Muslims threatens to overshadow what's truly an extraordinary and invaluable study. It shouldn't.

The question in the Pew Center survey led much of the news pickup of the poll, taking a lot of oxygen with it. "Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified," it read. "Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"

Eight percent of American Muslims said such attacks could often or sometimes be justified; among those under 30, it was 15 percent. (Add in those who say suicide attacks can be justified "rarely" and the net results go to 13 and 26 percent, respectively.)

There's plenty here to debate. The question suggests as a given that there are enemies of Islam against which the religion needs defense; better perhaps to ask this than to posit it. And it's hypothetical, leaving ample room for respondents to imagine scenarios of their choosing. Had it asked about justification for specific attacks – 9/11, Bali, the London subway, the Samarra mosque, the streets of Baghdad or Tel Aviv – one can imagine different results. Reality has a way of focusing the attention.

There's good evidence of that. When a previous Pew poll asked the same question among Jordanians in May 2005, 57 percent said attacks of this nature could often or sometimes be justified. When Pew re-asked it in April 2006 – after the November 2005 hotel bombings in Amman – just half as many, 29 percent, still held that view. Attitudes on hypotheticals can shift dramatically in the fire of experience.

The answer in Pew's poll of U.S. Muslims begs for more. How many Muslims indeed believe Islam has enemies against whom it must be defended? Who are these perceived enemies, what's seen as the nature and cause of their enmity, and what defense, if needed, is seen as most appropriate? All those could add context and clarity.

Comparisons can help as well. While a directly comparable question among all Americans isn't available, ABC News and the Washington Post asked about the acceptability of violence in a 1995 survey, after the Oklahoma City bombing, examining distrust of the federal government. "Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the United States government, or not?" asked that equally hypothetical question. Nine percent of Americans said yes, quite similar to Pew's result.

We have better context for understanding another of Pew's findings, in which 47 percent said they think of themselves mainly as Muslims, rather than mainly as Americans. In a separate poll Pew found that 42 percent of all Christians – soaring to 62 percent of evangelical white Protestants – similarly give primacy to their religious belief. Whether the choice is a real one is open to debate, but in any case knowing how others answer the question helps make sense of the result.

The focus on these two questions is understandable given their subject matter. But there's far more here of greater value in the Pew survey. It represents a truly extraordinary effort to reliably measure the attitudes and characteristics of a very small population group at the center of intense public interest and importance. We'll return to its 108 pages time and again, long after today's headlines have faded to tomorrow's.

Click here for the Pew report on American Muslims.

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