We keep trying to have this conversation about Islam, and we keep failing at it. Calls for more civil conversation might help, but what will help more is something more basic: knowledge not only about what Islam actually is, but also some of the key issues that are framing the American debate about Islam.
Here are five of those issues:
1. “Muslims” do not support the death penalty for apostates — but “Muslims in Some Countries” do
Next time someone tells you that the majority of Muslims support executing those who leave the faith, ask him to show you a map and explain which Muslims he’s talking about.
A disturbing majority of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and the Palestinian territories hold such views. But fewer than half of the Muslim populations of Iraq and Bangladesh support the death penalty for apostates, and the numbers decline rapidly from there — only 8% of Albanian Muslims hold this view, and 4% of Kazakhstani Muslims.
In general, once you get to Central Asia and and Southern and Eastern Europe, retrograde views go into serious decline. Muslim views on the death penalty for apostates seem to be determined by local culture and politics more than theology.
2. Most Muslims worldwide favor freedom of religion
A vast majority of Muslims, even in Muslim-dominant countries, believe in freedom of religion for people of other faiths. This Pew Research graph offers a quick scan of Muslim attitudes toward the idea that everyone should be able to practice their own faith.
Notice that the concept of religious freedom is cherished even among many Muslims who also believe that “sharia” should be the law of the land. Sharia has different meanings for different Muslims, and many believe that sharia should be applied only to family and property disputes, not all of civic life. In general, support for sharia and religious judges tends to be higher in countries where Islam is already officially favored.
3. Americans don’t know their Muslim neighbors
We don’t have an official statistic on the number of people who hold strong views on Islam without knowing any Muslims personally, but we do know that only 33% of Americans believe that Muslim immigrants want to assimilate into the American way of life, while over half of Muslim Americans say they want to assimilate.
The data also shows that Muslims exhibit pretty typical behavior when it comes to a lot of the things Americans do — Muslims watch TV, follow sports, play video games, and recycle at about the same rate as all their fellow Americans. Yet those standard behaviors don’t seem to inform many popular images of what Muslims are.
4. American Muslims haven’t been here long
Of the 3.5 million Muslims in the United States (as of 2010), a significant majority — 63% — are first-generation immigrants. That makes it all the more striking that over 80% of Muslims in this country are United States citizens. Sixty-five percent of foreign-born Muslims are naturalized citizens. As the U.S. Embassy in Iraq website notes, “As a point of comparison, 58 percent of foreign-born Chinese living in the United States are naturalized citizens.”
The Muslim population of the United States is still very new, but they are assimilating at a very high rate.
5. We’re at a peak of increased fear of Islamic extremism
Americans’ level of concern about the threat of Islamic terrorism and sense of how correlated Islam is with violence fluctuate wildly, even in the course of a single calendar year. In September, 50% of those surveyed said that Islam is more likely than other religions to cause violence. That is 7% higher than the level of concern in July, and 12% higher than it was in February. The 50% figure is the highest percentage since 2002, shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001.