Boston and the future of Islam in America

April 22, 2013

One of the central questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings is whether they portend a larger wave of terror attacks by homegrown Islamic radicals. The culprits, two brothers of Chechen origin, one of whom was a naturalized U.S. citizen, had both lived in the country for more than a decade. While the older brother is reported to have been sullen, resentful and ill at ease in his adopted country, the younger brother was by all accounts a well-mannered kid, whose main vice was marijuana. Many fear that if these two men could turn viciously against the country that gave them refuge, the same might be true of at least some small number of their co-religionists.

I grew up in a Muslim household in New York City’s polyglot outer boroughs, and the Tsarnaev brothers strike me, in broad outline, as recognizable figures. The younger brother’s Twitter feed, which has attracted wide attention, reads like dispatches from the collective id of at least a quarter of my high school classmates. Also recognizable is the brothers’ lower-middle-class but gentrifying Cambridge milieu, which bears a strong resemblance to the neighborhood in which I was raised. So like many Americans of Muslim origin, I’ve been struggling to understand what exactly went wrong in their heads. How could a “douchebag” and a “stoner” ‑ and here I’m paraphrasing the words of the Tsarnaev brothers’ acquaintances and friends ‑ have committed one of the most gruesome terror attacks in modern American history? We might never have a good answer to this question, and certainly won’t have a good answer anytime soon. But what we can do is get a sense of what we do and don’t know about U.S. Muslims, and what it might mean for our future.

Although I can’t claim to be representative of U.S. Muslims as a whole, my experience leads me to believe that America’s Muslim community will grow more secular over time. My parents are originally from Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 150 million that is currently in the throes of a violent clash over the role of Islam in public life. While Bangladesh has made impressive strides in a number of social indicators in recent decades, its poverty has sent large numbers of migrants to India, the Persian Gulf, Europe, Southeast Asia and, over the past two decades in particular, the United States.

The Bangladeshi community has largely escaped notice in the United States, as it remains relatively small; when I was growing up, it was smaller still. My first years were thus spent not in a Bangladeshi enclave but rather in a neighborhood with a large Hasidic Jewish population. We later moved to a neighborhood that was home to large numbers of African evangelicals, Tibetan Buddhists, Russian Jews and South Asian Muslims. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, New York City’s Muslim population appeared to have grown considerably over the course of my childhood. Head scarves and other traditional modes of dress are common in heavily Muslim precincts of Brooklyn and Queens, particularly among more recent immigrants. Yet it remains to be seen if this kind of very visible religious devotion will persist among second-generation South Asian Muslims, particularly if religious belief continues to fade in the population as a whole. I certainly haven’t seen it among my peers, but I know only a narrow spectrum of second-generation South Asian Muslims. These people identify more as Asian Americans than as members of a global Islamic community.

The best survey evidence offers only a limited and inconclusive portrait of America’s Muslim community. The Pew Research Center estimates that there are 2.75 million Muslims living in the United States, and that 63 percent were born outside of the country. Of this foreign-born slice of the Muslim population, 45 percent arrived in the United States after 1990 and 70 percent are naturalized U.S. citizens. This population is incredibly diverse. Roughly 13 percent of all U.S. Muslims are native-born African-Americans. Some U.S. Muslims are highly educated professionals leading integrated lives, while others are less-skilled workers earning poverty-level incomes in ethnic enclaves.

According to Pew, 69 percent of U.S. Muslims claim that religion is an important part of their lives; 47 percent report attending worship services on a weekly basis. These numbers closely parallel the numbers for U.S. Christians. It is also true, however, that one-fifth of U.S. Muslims seldom or never attend worship services, a sure sign of secularization.

Another sign is that a large majority of U.S. Muslims appear to be comfortable with religious pluralism. Pew found that 56 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that many different religions can lead to eternal life while 35 percent believe that only Islam will get you there. Similarly, 57 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that there are many valid ways to interpret Islamic teachings, as opposed to 37 percent who maintain that only one interpretation is valid. Suffice it to say, the notion that many different religions are of equal value is not likely to be embraced by the religiously orthodox. Indeed, one possibility is that this more relaxed approach to the demands of religion represents a way station on the road to abandoning religion entirely.

Americans of all stripes are abandoning organized religion at a brisk pace. While less than a 10th of Americans born from 1928 to 1945 are religiously unaffiliated, the same is true of one-third of Americans born from 1990 to 1994, according to a Pew Research Center survey released late last year. This dynamic seems to apply to U.S. Muslims as much as it applies to U.S. Christians. Part of the reason could be that the hold of religious communities on our lives has grown more tenuous. Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College who has been studying the cultural and political integration of U.S. Muslims and Arabs for more than a decade, has observed that only one-third of U.S. Muslims report going to a mosque for social or religious activities apart from regular services. It doesn’t appear that mosques have become the kernels of tight-knit communities, as the churches that were so central to immigrant life a century ago did.

Even if secularization does take hold, there is no reason to believe that religious extremism will fade away. Indeed, the opposite could come to pass, as a shrinking number of moderate Muslims leaves behind a more isolated core of orthodox Muslim believers who see themselves in conflict with an increasingly secular America. Even as the vast majority of U.S. Muslims integrate into U.S. cultural, political and economic institutions, some small minority might continue to find in Islam a convenient excuse for anti-American rhetoric and action. The Tsarnaev brothers, after all, didn’t live in a hotbed of Islamic radicalism; they lived in Inman Square, a neighborhood that is best known for its large Portuguese-speaking population. Perhaps the brothers would have been less likely to embrace extremism had they been rooted in a stronger Muslim religious community, complete with stronger role models. Or perhaps we need to accept the fact that some irreducible number of people will commit vile, despicable crimes no matter what we as a society do to prevent them.

Our best hope is that just as the terrorist violence committed by left-wing radicals in the 1960s and 1970s eventually burned out, Islamic radicalism will soon be an unhappy memory. But we’d be foolish to dismiss the darker possibility that a tiny subgroup of Muslim fanatics will continue to pose a threat for many decades to come.

PHOTO: People pray at at the Imam al-Khoei Foundation in New York, January 3, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz


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Excellent article.

Posted by Sebastien972 | Report as abusive


Posted by Conservastore | Report as abusive

mr salam thanks for a unbiased potential diagnosis of the problem based largely on your upbringing mostly in the usa it seems-guess a few things cross my mind:1)rather than wait for religions to become more secular over time why do not the teachers of the religion immediately point out that taking a life in the name of religion is strictly not allowed 2)it is hard for people to move from lands of struggle to this land of great plenty-maybe that transformation needs to be addressed in immigration and naturalization processes 3)parenting needs to be practiced at all times by parents of all religions-not just before a kids 18th birthday

Posted by Conservastore | Report as abusive

My compliments on a well thought out, unbiased discussion. Of particular note is the conclusion and caution at the end.

“We’d be foolish to dismiss the darker possibility that a tiny subgroup of Muslim fanatics will continue to pose a threat for many decades to come.”

It is truly unfortunate for American muslims that “other Americans” must presume the worst of muslims if they are to not risk being future victims of those few disaffected ones who vent their frustration through impersonal violence.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Well done article, and exactly why the “good” Muslims need to stand up and speak out when something is awry. They most likely can set up a “watch net” to warn of radicalization much more effectively than non-Muslims.

Posted by artvet2 | Report as abusive

Everytime something happens around the world we simple Muslims start getting tummy ache thinking that it will be another blow to us as terrorist and jehadist; our travel and interactions with others in society become scary. Where is the end of all these for us? How long we have to bear these disgusting shames all around the world? I think, we as Muslims, should say enough is enough and stand against these stupid acts of atrocities to innocents by some small group of criminals or distorted psyche individuals bringing shames on Islam and Muslims. The time has come that we Muslims definitely need to stand together firm against killing of innocents. Killing one innocent is equivalent to killing the whole human mankind.

Posted by MomenulHuq | Report as abusive

Left-wing 1960s, -70s radicals did not ‘burnout’
they learned their Gramski, Alinsky, Mao, Che, etc. and shifted the Strategy to destruction from within, rather than open revolution.
We now see the Result in the WH, Congress, Left-wing ‘think-tanks’, our Education System, and some of our ‘too big to fail’ Companies.
As I write this note it occurs to me that quiet infiltration is very much in line with Koranic advise to adherents to Islam … When Islam is a small minority in Society, pretend to be aligned with the Neighborhood, grow your influence and size, and Generations later … You better Convert, put on your Bhurka, or … Game over! Look at Brotherhood in Egypt, what is happening in Turkey under Erdogan, and what we see stepping out from the Shadows all over Europe.

Posted by syper67 | Report as abusive

well said.

/too bad MSNBC would never have you on to be interviewed…

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

A significant factor that you identified regarding the 1970’s radicals “burning themselves out” was that the 1970’s radicals knew they were well outside mainstream America. In fact, many now operate within, or on the fringes, of the mainstream they condemned.

On the other hand, a large number of the Muslims you mentioned in the surveys (one can only assume the same “conservative” ~35% ) consider themselves within the (self-defined) mainstream. That means there are likely 1.0 million Muslims in the U.S. that are embracing a a less tolerant Islam, often the Wahhabi version promoted by the Saudis (a nation that is not a model of tolerance).

It is that subgroup, as you mention, we should be very concerned about going forward.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

A similar number of other religious sects have come to USA and extremism and anti American feelings are not that rampant there. Moslems will need to see for the sake of their children as to what in moderate moslem teaching leads to some of their children turning violent. You will have to look at speech and attitudes that are tolerated in mainstream. Radical is only the tip of iceberg. fascism is a seed that grows slowly but has a strong hold.

Posted by 683142 | Report as abusive

Radicalism is a product of persecution. When a group of people are not given an opportunity to get on with their life in a peaceful and just manner, then some of them are going to resort to radical ideas and actions in an attempt to change their situation. The USA’s support for Israel makes it a huge target for Muslim radicals. Call me naive if you will, but if the USA and others could put pressure on Israel to comply with UN resolutions and return Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war, then it would significantly reduce the number of Islamist extremists around the world and everyone’s security including Israel’s.

Posted by Expat_in_Jordan | Report as abusive

but, my question is: is islam a peaceful religion????

Posted by spike2maximus | Report as abusive

This article is misleading. You monolithize us and don’t write at all about the sects active in America. You cannot talk about Muslims in America without that. I do not appreciate this monolithizing as it clouds who we are. Sunnis, Shi’a, and Wahabis/Salafis have very different outlooks on religion and life even within the same sect (look at Sufism and the variety of Sunni Shari’a schools). You cannot write about Islam without addressing this. What about the rising leadership class of Muslims in our new land? Where are your mentions of Zaid Shakir and Hamza Yusuf, Bilal Philips, Sherman Jackson, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr? They are the ones that will lead their perspective communities spiritually either away from or towards “radicalism” and I find it shocking that you ignored them. Let’s not get into the different cultural and ethnic interpretations of Islam that come as baggage with every Muslim: you sadly ignored that too. We are not a hive mind or Legion. People in the media should stop portraying us as such. Just because you come from a Muslim community does not mean you know about the Muslim community. For all interested read Sherman Jackson’s “Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection” to see just how complex Muslim identity between different groups are (in this case between the established African American Muslim Community and the new immigrant community).

Posted by Red_Candle | Report as abusive