Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
There has been no shortage of controversy about Muslims’ place in American society over the past ten years – and yet, according to a new report, the number and size of Muslim religious bodies is growing rapidly,. In a study of mosques across the country, a coalition of researchers discovered that the number of U.S. mosques has more than doubled over the past decade, with Muslim houses of worship expanding outside metropolitan areas.
According to the report, the arrival of new Muslim immigrants from places like Somalia, West Africa, and Iraq has helped fuel this growth, but older mosques have also seen a sharp increase in the number of attendees at Jum’ah (the weekly congregational prayer). The report notes that every decade since the 1970’s has seen substantial growth in both the number and size of mosques, indicating that the Muslim community will only continue to expand as time passes.
The growth has also been accompanied by significant changes in the outlook of mosque leaders. The number of mosque leaders who believe that American society as a whole is hostile to Islam has dropped almost 30 points since 2000, from a majority (56%) of mosque leaders to only one quarter (25%). These findings are striking, considering that the past decade has seen a myriad of controversies over Islam in America, including hearings on the alleged radicalization of Islam in the U.S., a raft of legislation addressing the specter of Shari’a law and disputes over whether mosques should be built around the country, including national tumult over whether an Islamic community center should be built near the site of the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
Last September, just before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, PRRI released a survey which illustrated Americans’ ambivalence about the place of Islam in their society. For example:
- A majority (54 percent) of the general public agree that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the U.S., compared to 43 percent who disagree.
- Americans are evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life (47 percent agree, 48 percent disagree).
- A slim majority (51%) of Americans say they would be comfortable with a mosque being built near their home, while 46% disagree.
However, attitudes about Muslims and Islam are shifting among younger Americans. For instance, nearly 7-in-10 (68%) Millennials (age 18 to 29) have a favorable view of Muslims, compared to a much slimmer majority of Americans age 50-64 (53%), and less than half (46%) of seniors (age 65 and up).
At least part of what’s going on here is that increased interaction is leading to broader acceptance. Americans who regularly interact with Muslims have more positive views about them and about Islam. For example, Millennials are more than twice as likely as seniors to have a conversation with a Muslim at least occasionally. As Dr. Robert P. Jones notes in this week’s column for “Figuring Faith,” the tide seems to be shifting, particularly with regard to anti-Shari’a laws. Americans’ concerns about the threat posed by Shari’a law have continued to fluctuate, and seem to be more connected to controversies in the news than realities in their communities. These findings suggest that as Muslim communities grow and expand into different regions, they will become increasingly accepted into the American social mainstream.