The Thriving American Muslim

New data shows that Muslims in the U.S. are pretty well assimilated. Here’s a theory or two on how to explain it.


Yesterday’s NYTimes reported a pretty interesting Gallup poll that took a 2008 survey on quality of life indicators and focused on the results for American Muslims. According to the poll, Muslims in the US are far more likely to see themselves as “thriving” (41%)  than Muslims in any other country except Saudi Arabia (51%)  and Germany (47%). The comparable figure for Turkey is 18%, Egypt 13%, Pakistan 11%.  France is 23%, and England it is a eyebrow-raising 7%.


Asian-American Muslims (from countries like India and Pakistan) have more income and education and are more likely to be thriving than other American Muslims. In fact, their quality of life indicators are higher than for most other Americans, except for American Jews.


American Muslim women, contrary to stereotype, are more likely than American Muslim men to have college and post-graduate degrees. They are more highly educated than women in every other religious group except Jews. American Muslim women also report incomes more nearly equal to men, compared with women and men of other faiths.

But this isn’t because of a relative lack of religiosity amongst American Muslims. In fact, “American Muslims are generally very religious, saying that religion is an important part of their daily lives (80 percent), more than any other group except Mormons (85 percent). The figure for Americans in general is 65 percent.”

As for politics: “By party identification, Muslims resembled Jews more than any other religious group, with small minorities registered as Republicans, roughly half Democrats and about a third independents.”

So the upshot of this seems to be that Muslims in the US are pretty well assimilated. Their profile along a host of quality of life indicators seems to track, or even exceed, figures for the US population as a whole.

Anyone have any thoughts on how to explain this? Some possibilities:

1. The Richard Posner argument: American-style capitalism is the most powerful mechanism for social integration in the world. By having a system with a relatively weak social safety net (compared to Britain and France), everyone is forced to work, which (paradoxically, perhaps) socializes people into that very system.

2. America attracts a much more ambitious and upwardly-mobile Muslim immigrant. These are the people who would likely be thriving no matter where they live. This skews the US numbers.

3. American Muslims are as likely as any other American to buy into the cult of optimism and self-advancement in that country; so even though they may not be doing as well by objective measures as Muslims in other countries, they self-report as far more satisfied because of ideological commitment.

I’m sure there are other more plausible explanations for the data. It is probably a combination of factors — if I read Posner right, he sees 1 and 2 as complimenting one another.  It might help to have a better sense of the racial cross section of American Muslims – the poll reports that 35 percent are African Americans, but that’s it. Thoughts?

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The Thriving American Muslim

  1. I like theories 1 and 3, tweaking with the thought that there are alot of ‘God and Country’ americans and that muslims belong more in that portion of the happily assimilated.

  2. Is this the same Posner Michael Ignatieff cites in his writings on torture?

  3. Wild guess — the Qur’an and American values are closely aligned?

  4. I’m suspicious of treating “Muslims” as a single category. There is a huge cultural array under that umbrella term. So what are the national and socio-economic origins of American Muslims? Do they differ from those in, for example, the UK? And do origins differ from one European country to another? They certainly do. In Germany — let’s not skip lightly over that result — Muslims are mostly of Turkish origin. In the UK, they’re mostly Pakistanis. What do Turks and Pakistanis have in common aside from Islam? Not much. Anyway, this is all speculation but I suspect it’s an important part of the answer.

    • “I’m suspicious of treating “Muslims” as a single category.”

      As are the authors of both the Times article and the original study, if you read them.

        • Did you read the last line?

          • Well, I was trying to avoid the word “racial,” because race is hardly a useful analytical tool here (beyond African-American Muslims). Look, here and in the original sources, there’s a nod to diversity within the category and then the category is applied over and over as if it were anything but diverse. I think that obscures the diversity that is almost certainly a contributory factor to the issue under discussion.

            Even the national categories I referred can do the same. The Netherlands’ problems with unintegrated “Muslims” are largely limited to Moroccans. But then you look at the source of the Dutch Moroccan population and you discover that, for reasons of Dutch labour policy in the 1950s and 1960s, they mainly come from the Rif Mountains region of Morocco — which, to urban Moroccans, is rather like Arkansas is to New Yorkers.

            Sure, “Muslim” is fine as a starting point. But drill down and it quickly becomes apparent that it is not terribly helpful in understanding the issues.

  5. I don’t think there is any one explanation but you have to look at culture as well. Maybe the muslims who end up in US strongly push school and achievement on themselves and their children. Also, the racial grievance industry is focused on blacks, and to a lesser extent latinos, so they are taught to think they are hard done by and act accordingly. The ethnic groups that aren’t a focus of racial grievance industry seem to be thriving.

    I find the fact that muslims from India/Pak are doing better than other muslims to be curious. We need M Gladwell to do an article similar to his Black Like Them to explain it all.

    • “…so they are taught to think they are hard done by and act accordingly.”

      Casual observation seems to support this view. There are too many young people in my own neighbourhood (of every ethnicity) who act out their “hard done by” attitudes. I wonder where this originates, some other “grievance industry” operating in our communities? Or do they inherit it from their parents griping about a moronic boss or the cost-of-living or some other irritation? Perhaps they’re too pampered, I just don’t know.

  6. It’s a shame there was no Canada number to get another North American data point

    • My thoughts exactly, and not only because it would be another NA data point, but because Canada represents, in some ways, the antithesis of the US approach to immigration, with the focus on multi-culturalism rather than integration.

      I would be very surprised if we didn’t post numbers that indicate more Canadian Muslims see themselves as “thriving” than American ones.

  7. As you noted, Andrew, the vast difference between the US and UK “thriving” numbers is, frankly, shocking, especially when you consider that the UK is seemingly further along with its visible integration of Muslims (more in political office, on TV, in business, etc.). I think the ability to be more selective with immigration from Muslim countries has a great deal to do with it, but then there’s the Germany number to throw that off.

    This is one of those data sets that can be interpreted to mean literally anything, but is probably self-contradicting enough that there’s not much point to looking deeper into it. I would be interested in seeing the numbers for Muslims for other immigrant populations in the US, however, specifically as against Asians (in the Southeast Asian sense, as opposed to the Affirmative Action definition* that lumps everyone east of Israel and west of Alaska into one group) and Latinos.

    “American Muslim women, contrary to stereotype, are more likely than American Muslim men to have college and post-graduate degrees.”

    That’s true for the general population as well, isn’t it? At least, I’m fairly certain that’s the case in Canada.

    From the article:

    “There are clear signs of social alienation, however. Lower percentages of Muslims register to vote or volunteer their time than adherents of other faiths. They are less likely to be satisfied with the area where they live. These indicators are “worrying,” said Ahmed Younis, a senior analyst at the Muslim studies center. ”

    This would seem to indicate that reason #3 is playing into this quite a bit.

    * – As a friend at UCLA joked while we were talking it over there, “the US has managed to create a minority group that includes about 50% of the world’s population”

  8. The underlying current of this post is absolutely horrendous.

    “Wha? Muslims are actually civilized? They’re not a bunch of uneducated radicals willing the destruction of the infidels?”

    Muslim nations have a far richer tradition of education, austerity and tolerance than most european christian nations, yet people are convinced that continuation of this tradition simply is an anathema in a “western” nation.

    This should not be surprising. Anymore than it is surprising that jews or christians have a similar cross-section (although I would argue that christians tend to be more bottom heavy in these kinds of cross-sections).

    • I think you’re overstating your case here a bit. The Muslim world certainly had its moments of being the leading light of the world on science and mathematics, and religious tolerance, but I’m afraid those days have long since passed, and they’ve been overtaken on every score by Western Christian nations. So “far richer” is a gross exaggeration, unless you think it’s still relevant today that Baghdad was the world centre of learning in the 12th century, or that the Ottoman Empire was famous for religious tolerance.

      What would be a Muslim nation today that can be considered advanced both economically and socially? Turkey comes to mind, maybe Bosnia-Herzegovina or Albania for half-credit.

      • You seem to be confusing socio-economic status with basic belief systems, which is the underlying bias behind the poll, and some of the comments here.

        i.e. “muslims are actually affluent and tolerant?! How can that be possible?!”

        You take that poll and apply it pre-1900s, and you’ll get a very different picture about muslims vs. jews vs. christians. And it will have no relevance then as it does today.

        And do you seriously believe that Western Christian nations are the beacon of tolerance and scientific advancement?

        • I wasn’t responding to the poll but rather to your claim that Muslim nations have “a far richer tradition of education, austerity and tolerance than most European christian nations”.

          I also confess to being confused by your question at the end. If they aren’t beacons of tolerance and scientific advancement, then which nations are?

          • Hmmm…perhaps you should consider what timescale you are utilizing when addressing my claim(s).

            i.e. when you think about “tradition”, do you think in terms of the past 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? 100 years? 1000 years?

          • Perhaps you should read what I said. All I objected to was your use of the phrase “far richer”. If you re-read my comments above, you’ll see that I acknowledged that the Muslim world was indeed a centre of science and learning (particularly during the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad), and has a tradition of religious tolerance, or at a very minimum a tradition of not forcibly converting subject peoples.

            At the same time, I feel like those traditions are centuries old, and have for the most part been replaced by some considerably less tolerant and even regressive (socially and scientifically speaking) ones, which have been much longer lasting. I don’t particularly think that this regression is related to Islam, but nevertheless the Muslim world has been distinctively reactionary for the better part of the past millennium.

            If after all of this you still think these add up to “a far richer tradition”, at a very minimum you’ll allow me to disagree with your characterization.

  9. Hypothesis 5: Its about the numbers

    The literature on intrastate ethnic conflict suggests that there is a non-linear relationship between the ethnic fractionalization and ethnic conflict. You have little conflict in homogenous societies, and you have little conflict in extremely fractious societies, because no one group can muster enough force to challenge the rest. Where you have the greatest degree of conflict is in the middle category – where there is say a 75% majority and a 25% minority. The minority is large enough that the majority feels threatened. Quebec comes to mind as a pretty good example of this.

    How is this relevant to Muslims? In Canada and the US Muslims are only a small percentage of the population, and indeed a small percentage of the immigrant population. White Americans do not feel threatened by Muslim immigration. Change the subject to discuss African Americans or Hispanic Americans and the situation changes – white Americans do see both groups as a threat. Canada’s immigration system has been successful not so much because of multi-culturalism, but more because we get a lot of immigrants from many different countries.

    In Europe, on the other hand, the vast majority of immigrants are Muslim. This gives racists a specific target. This means that in some neighbourhoods, white children are a minority (rather than a plurality, or one of many groups), and may adopt some of the customs of the local Muslim majority – firing up the ire of racists.

    Germany, I suspect, is an exception perhaps because Turkish muslims are more accepted, perhaps because Germany does more to restrict racism (unlike the rest of Europe there is no German nationalism any more), and perhaps because of some impact related to Germany’s guest worker program (are guest workers counted? Are racists less likely to make a fuss over guest workers than citizens?).

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