By Nazita Lajevardi
[This appeared, along with the cover photo, today in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog]
During his campaign and presidency, Donald Trump has frequently targeted the Muslim community, both within and outside the United States. In 2015, Trump famously proposed a “database” of Muslims living in the United States. In 2017, he succeeded in imposing restrictions on travelers to the United States from certain Muslim-majority countries.
More recently, Trump has targeted two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. They were among four Democratic members who he said should “go back” to their home countries, although all but Omar were born in the United States. Then just last week he attacked them again and persuaded Israel not to allow them entry as part of a congressional delegation.
Implicit in Trump’s comments, and in much of the criticism of Tlaib and Omar, is that they are not fully “American.” This is a problematic implication for two reasons. First, surveys show that, in fact, Muslim Americans are highly patriotic and mirror non-Muslims socioeconomically. Second, new research shows that even implicitly framing Muslim and American identities as separate may reduce Muslim Americans’ willingness to engage in politics.
Most Muslim Americans identify as American
National surveys of Muslim Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2007 and 2011 asked respondents whether they identify as “American,” “Muslim” or “both.” In both years, about 27 percent of Muslims said “American” and 18 percent said “both.” The largest minority, about 48 percent, identified primarily as “Muslim.”
In its 2017 survey, Pew asked a different question: how much “pride” Muslims feel in being American. Here, Muslim Americans were no different from Americans as a whole. Nearly all Muslims (92 percent) “completely” or “mostly” agreed that they are “proud to be an American,” compared to 91 percent of the general public. In fact, a larger fraction of Muslims said “completely” agree (66 percent vs. 60 percent among the public).
These results confirm what other studies have found. Despite insinuations that Muslims living in the United States aren’t “American” enough, Muslim Americans express a strong commitment to this country.
The problem with asking Muslim Americans about identity
Of course, despite what surveys ask, Muslims in the United States do not necessarily walk around thinking of themselves in terms of religious or national identity. Like non-Muslims, Muslims are also parents, children, spouses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, construction workers, and so on.
Indeed, in framing identity in terms of faith or nation, surveys may unintentionally discourage Muslims from living the democratic citizenship that many see as quintessentially American.
That is the implication of research by Brian Calfano as well as Valerie Martinez-Ebers and Tony Carey of the University of North Texas and Alejandro Buetel of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This research was just published in a volume that we edited, Understanding Muslim Political Life in America.
In 2012, these researchers conducted an experiment on a national sample of Muslim Americans ages 18-25. Participants were randomly divided into three groups based on what questions appeared at the very beginning of the survey. One group was asked whether they identified as Muslim, American, or both — just as in the earlier Pew surveys. The second group was asked questions that, while not using the term “Muslim,” gauged their commitment to a religious faith. The third group did not initially see either set of questions.
Here’s what happened. When young Muslims — and particularly women — were asked about their American/Muslim identity, they reported less interest in politics, compared with those who weren’t asked either set of questions. For one, they were less likely to say that they were motivated to engage in politics because of various reasons, such as a sense of obligation or a feeling of marginalization. Moreover, they were less likely to report engaging in actual political activity, such as making donations to or volunteering for politics campaigns, engaging in protests, contacting an elected official, and discussing politics in the household. This didn’t happen when young Muslims were asked the questions about their commitment to a religious faith.
Although this experiment was conducted only among younger Muslims, it suggests that the very way in which politics forces Muslims to think about their identity — where “Muslim” and “American” could be alternatives — may have a politically demobilizing effect. And this was true even years before Trump’s presidency.
This demobilizing effect could be the long-standing consequence of the scrutiny U.S. Muslims have long faced, which often pits “American” against “Muslim” identities. Encountering these limiting labels in surveys may make Muslims believe that they should appear less politically engaged so as to avoid inviting even more scrutiny of their beliefs and behavior.
With the 2020 campaign already well underway, it is clear that Trump will continue to make similar attacks on Muslims and Islam. His attacks play to a sympathetic audience: According to a 2017 survey, 55 percent of Americans supported increased mosque surveillance, 52 percent supported targeting Muslims at airport screenings, and 47 percent supported a temporary travel ban on Muslims from other nations.
For many, then, Muslims are seen more as a threat to America than as fellow Americans. And the national conversation that results — in which Muslim identity is defined as a limited choice involving faith and nation — may be one that pushes some Muslim Americans away from politics. In turn, this only makes it easier for political leaders to pursue a divisive political strategy that singles out Muslims.