The Pew Research Center, a well-respected nonpartisan “fact tank,” recently released a comprehensive report titled “Muslim Americans – Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” Their researchers interviewed some 60,000 respondents that included subsets such as recent immigrants, native-born converts, and selected ethnic groups, including Arab, Pakistani, and African American.
Since the report builds on similar surveys conducted last year by the Pew organization in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as earlier surveys in 22 other countries, it provides meaningful comparative data. It is the unimpeachable thoroughness and professionalism of the report that makes some of its findings so terribly chilling – and led me to a series of points of view, like stepping stones, on the whole matter.
On a positive note, the survey found that, by and large, American Muslims integrate well into middle-class mainstream society. More than 70 percent of those interviewed said they could better their lives in the United States by working hard. And, compared with their European counterparts, a significantly larger percentage of respondents firmly rejected extremist Islam. However, it is the remainder – those both here and abroad who find terrorism an acceptable political strategy – that made me stop and consider.
Can suicide bombings of civilian targets in defense of a religion or a political belief system ever be justified? Only 78 percent of American Muslims believe it is never justified. While this is a higher percentage than in Muslim communities in some other nations (Great Britain 70%, Pakistan 69%, France 64%, Nigeria 23%, Egypt 45%), I found it hard to reconcile that more than one out of five American Muslims surveyed actually believe that the killing of innocent civilians by suicide bombers is ever acceptable.
Another finding that gave me pause was that 47 percent of those interviewed considered themselves Muslims first and Americans second. Furthermore, nearly one-third of the respondents felt there is a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in modern society. Slightly more than one quarter believed that Muslims coming to the United States should mostly remain apart from the larger American society. Given the bad rap US culture gives Muslims, this last is hardly surprising.
It was a sidebar in the Pew report, however, that caught me totally off guard and made me reevaluate everything I had written here thus far. According to the May 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 42 percent of American Christians also consider themselves Christian first and Americans second. How much difference is there really, then, between members of the Christian Right who justify the bombing of abortion clinics and Islamic extremists who are ready to justify suicide bombing?
Devout belief of any kind is a two-edged sword. It offers believers a sense of identity and community and gives them meaning and purpose in what is unquestionably a chaotic and overwhelming world. Yet throughout history, religion has also been a major source of human conflict. How many more lives will the “virtuous” claim as they do what they consider God’s work?
On reflection, I found myself shifting to yet another point of view. I have to take exception as well to the Pew Research Center’s asking people whether they identify more with religion or country – as if the complex and highly nuanced matter of identity could ever to reduced to a simple either/or question. The very presumption that it can (you are either with us or against us) has sparked conflict throughout history.
There is much here to ponder. We are not sheep. We cannot be defined solely by our nationalities, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, political leanings, or favorite sports teams. We cannot even properly define ourselves by such labels. None of us are all that simple. Besides, such terms merely describe our outer wrappings. Our transcendent essence, hidden inside each of us, defies all definition and labeling. At that level, we are embraced by oneness. From that place we easily see that the 10,500 religions and denominations currently practiced on the planet, like all of our differences, are merely constructs of the human mind.
There’s much here to consider besides the desperate acts of the disenfranchised and the sanctimonious judgment of the self-righteous. Humanity has long defined itself by a compulsive need to belong, to believe, and to defend to the death, a particular point of view. Our chronicles glorify those who emerge victorious on behalf of their country, God, or ideology. Perhaps we are at the threshold of a new era in which a new humanity is being asked to embrace new values that require us to forego all that has previously kept us apart?
We are at an interesting crossroads: One path follows the judgmental footsteps of our ancestors by continuing to dwarf our majesty through labels, carefully distinguishing between “us” and “them.” The other dissolves all separation and duality, after which suicide bombers no longer have a valid reason to die. The choice, as always, is yours. The only difference is that now, thanks to extremists of all stripes, we can no longer pretend not to know.
Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the USABookNews.com Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.
©2004 – 2021. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.