Boston and the future of Islam in America

Mon Apr 22, 2013 4:55pm EDT

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

People pray at at the Imam al-Khoei Foundation in New York, January 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

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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.

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