Finding the news on Muslim Americans

PewStudyWhenever I have the pleasure of writing a story based on another organization's work (I actually cringe when I have to do this), it's always interesting trying to come up with a news hook that is relevant but not what everyone else is going to do. In these situations you usually have a press release with the preordained lede, but there is nothing forcing journalists to use it. Sometimes the press release lede is a no-brainer, but sometimes there is room for creativity. Such was the case for an excellent $1 million survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life earlier this week on Muslim Americans. The survey, according to Pew, "finds them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world."

And that's what most major media outlets told us the next day. But is that the news in this survey? Here is The Economist:

Hypothesis: the Pew people are actually running a clever survey on us, the media people and the bloggers, seeing how we react to a poll that can be interpreted in many ways. Thoughts?

Now, I doubt Pew spent $1 million in an effort to see how the media would react, but the various links posted on The Economist's blog show how varied the responses were. But like most big outlets, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran with Pew's lead. Here's the Post's Alan Cooperman:

Unlike Muslim minorities in many European countries, U.S. Muslims are highly assimilated, close to parity with other Americans in income and overwhelmingly opposed to Islamic extremism, according to the first major, nationwide random survey of Muslims.

The survey by the Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of U.S. Muslims said the use of suicide bombings against civilian targets to defend Islam is never justified. But 5 percent said it is justified "rarely," 7 percent said "sometimes," and 1 percent said "often"; the remaining 9 percent said they did not know or declined to answer.

Those survey numbers are great, but the news to me was buried 12 graphs into Cooperman's story and received scant attention:

Still, the poll found "pockets of sympathy for extremism" particularly among African Americans and young Muslims, said Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center.

Native-born African American Muslims, who represent about 20 percent of the total Muslim population, are its most disillusioned segment, the report shows. They are more skeptical than foreign-born Muslims of the idea that hard work pays off. About 13 percent are satisfied with the way things are going, compared with 29 percent of other native-born Muslims and 45 percent of Muslim immigrants.

One of the poll's most striking findings, Kohut said, is that African American Muslims are considerably more likely than immigrant Muslims to express support for al-Qaeda.

Nine percent of African American Muslims expressed a favorable attitude toward Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, while 36 percent held a very unfavorable view. Among foreign-born Muslims, 3 percent had a favorable view of al-Qaeda while 63 percent chose "very unfavorable."

Rebecca Trounson of the Times placed the bad news six graphs into her story:

Nonetheless, he said, the study also found pockets of sympathy and support for extremism among Muslim Americans, especially among the young.

Overall, although 78% of respondents said suicide bombings of civilian targets to defend Islam could not be justified, 13% said they could be, under some circumstances. That view was strongest -- 26% -- among those younger than 30.

I haven't reviewed the original survey data myself, so I'm not one to say definitively what should or should have been mentioned in the lede, but it seems to me that saying American Muslims are generally happy with this country in comparison to European Muslims is old news. Having such precise polling data is awesome and very newsworthy, but the more interesting result, and that could mean it is more newsworthy, is that there are a significant number of American Muslims who are not happy and feel sympathies for extremist Islam.

Now the question is, Why? Are these younger Muslim Americans just rebelling against their elders, or is there a deeper theological reason for this trend?

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