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Engaging American Muslims: Political Trends and Attitudes
Farid Senzai
ISPU Fellow
Date: 4/3/2012

Executive Summary

As the 2012 presidential election season moves into full swing, the American Muslim minority community has become a more important player on the political landscape, especially in key swing states. However, data on its members’ political attitudes and behaviors have been limited and scattered. This report represents the first effort to comprehensively combine and analyze a decade’s worth of research on this particular community in order to provide insights for political strategists and community organizers. It includes analyses of the data by racial and ethnic background, state of residence, education level, and other factors.

The report primarily draws upon surveys conducted by the Muslims in the American Public Square (MAPS) project in 2001 and 2004, the Pew Research Center’s national surveys on the American Muslim Community in 2007 and 2011, and the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS) conducted between 2006 and 2008. Two case studies examine the community’s political activity in two swing states: Florida and Michigan.

Key findings

American Muslims were at a political and social crossroad after September 11, 2001. Soon after 9/11, the majority of Muslims engaged in a massive political shift away from the Republican Party. Arab-American and South Asian-American Muslims who initially supported Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) in the 2000 presidential election gave their support to Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004. This political realignment was a result of several factors, among them the passing of laws such as the PATRIOT Act and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Between 2001 and 2004, the percentage of American Muslims who were dissatisfied with the country’s direction soared from 38 percent to 63 percent.

The shift toward the Democratic Party was further strengthened when the community voted overwhelmingly for Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) in 2008. Despite some disappointments, the community strongly supported him during his first term in office. In 2011, Obama continued to maintain a higher approval rating among American Muslims than the general public.

Since 9/11, American Muslims have faced increased discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes. The MAPS study suggests that they have experienced a dramatic increase in all types of discrimination since that tragic incident. In 2009, 58 percent of Americans expressed the belief that Muslims face “a lot” of discrimination. The increased animosity toward them, coupled with the rise of Islamophobia, has motivated the community to mobilize and become more politically active.  

Research has shown that American Muslims are well informed about politics and pay attention to what is happening both at home and abroad. The vast majority of them want to be politically involved, with 95 percent stating that American Muslims should participate in the political process. Voter registration in the community, however, continues to trail that of the general public. The Pew survey suggests that 66 percent of the community’s were registered to vote in 2011. This percentage would likely be much higher if one were to count only those who are citizens and therefore eligible to vote.

Contrary to growing public opinion, most American Muslims do not see a conflict between their faith and being American or living in a modern society. The majority of them feel that American Muslims, a large number of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, should adopt American culture and become part of the mainstream. Furthermore, studies support the idea that mosques, like churches and synagogues, are associated with a higher level of civic engagement. American Muslims who were engaged in their mosques were found to be 53 percent more involved in civic activities (e.g., charity organizations, school and/or youth programs) than those who were not connected or involved with a mosque.

Surveys have also examined the community’s opinions on a number of policy issues. The data suggest that American Muslims, much like the American public in general, are more concerned with domestic than foreign policy and with the economy in particular. They generally demonstrate a high level of support for immigration and support the view that immigrants strengthen, rather than burden, the country. However, there are important racial distinctions on this issue, as African-American Muslims have a much less favorable view of immigrants. During the past decade, American Muslims have also become more accepting of homosexuality.

When it comes to American policy in the Middle East and the “war on terror,” American Muslims have been largely unsupportive of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the lowest amount of support being found among African-American Muslims. There has been, however, a decreasing skepticism about the sincerity of the “war against terror” over the decade. Most community members believe that the best way to combat terror is to change American policy in the Middle East and to address the region’s social, economic, and political issues. The majority of them continue to believe that Israel and Palestine can coexist and that a solution to the conflict is possible.

The Florida case study suggests that the American Muslim voter community is increasingly engaged, in part due to the mobilization efforts of Emerge USA and similar organizations. In a swing state, the community has the potential to impact the election’s outcome. Similarly, American Muslims in Michigan were found to be very active and politically engaged.


1)     Provide Resources to Further Mobilize the Community: Empirical evidence suggests that American Muslims are increasingly active and civically engaged citizens. Although their level of political incorporation and mobilization has increased over the past decade, the community as a whole is still not as engaged as it could be. For example, some levels of involvement trail behind those of the general public, including the percentage of those who are active members of a political party or contribute to political campaigns. Community organizers must provide the information and resources needed to help motivate and mobilize the community further.
2)     Tap into the Community’s Active Segments: Nationally, African-American Muslims were found to be most active in almost all categories of political participation, compared to immigrant Muslims. In addition, state level data in Michigan showed high political engagement by women and young people. Community organizers and political strategists should tap into these highly active subgroups to lead their communities.

3)     Engage with Mosque Communities: Evidence suggests that higher levels of religiosity and mosque attendance lead to higher levels of political participation. This can be seen in mosque participants’ higher voting levels, increased awareness of the issues, writing to their representatives, engaging peacefully in political protest, and other indicators of political activity. Candidates, political leaders, and community organizers trying to reach out to Muslim voters should reach out to the mosque leadership and active members.
4)     Speak to the Issues That Concern American Muslims: The American Muslim community can be cultivated for either a Republican or a Democratic candidate, particularly in such swing states as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. This report highlights evidence that candidates can build better relations with the community by demonstrating awareness of those issues that are of most concern to community members.

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