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.