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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Baseless Assimilation Claim

Donald Trump made a baseless claim that assimilation among Muslim immigrants in the U.S. is “pretty close” to “nonexistent.” Trump offered no support for his claim, but the Pew Research Center, which conducted detailed surveys in 2011, concluded that “Muslim Americans appear to be highly assimilated into American society.”

Scholars on Islam that we spoke to also dismissed Trump’s claim as “bizarre,” absurd” and inconsistent with their observations of a Muslim community that they say is — for the most part — well integrated into American culture and identity.

Trump made his claim about Muslim immigrant assimilation during an interview on Fox News after host Sean Hannity asked him how the U.S. should vet Muslim immigrants (starting at the 7:46 mark).

Hannity, June 14: So the question is, if [Muslims] grow up [abroad] and you want to come to America, how do we vet somebody’s heart and ascertain if they’re coming here for freedom or if they want to proselytize, indoctrinate and bring their theocracy with them?

Trump: Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost — I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation. They come — they don’t — for some reason, there’s no real assimilation.

Assimilation is difficult to quantify, but the Pew Research Center tried to do just that in detailed telephone interviews with more than 1,000 Muslims in the U.S. that included questions related to a wide variety of signifiers of assimilation. Questions concerned attitudes about upward mobility through hard work, rates of citizenship, opinions about Muslim immigrants’ attempts to adopt American culture and whether respondents identified primarily as American or Muslim. The survey also considered indicators such as the number of non-Muslims one had in his or her close circle of friends, as well as more overt signs such as displaying the American flag.

The responses to those surveys led to an overall conclusion by Pew that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society.”

Similarly, a Gallup poll that came out the same year found that 69 percent of Muslim Americans identify “extremely” or “very” strongly with the U.S. (somewhat less than U.S. Protestants and Catholics), and that Muslim Americans were nearly as likely to strongly identify with their faith. Gallup concluded that, as with every group, including Muslim Americans, “people who identify extremely strongly with the U.S. are also more likely to identify strongly with their worldwide religious identity.” Moreover, Gallup observed a “noticeable” trend in “the degree to which thriving Muslim Americans demonstrate a sense of ownership and belonging to their country.”

We also spoke to several experts on Muslim Americans, all of whom told us Trump’s claim was off base and uninformed. We reached out to the Trump campaign for clarification and backup, but as usual we did not hear back.

While these surveys and expert observations contradict Trump’s pronouncement that Muslim immigrants’ assimilation to America is “pretty close” to “nonexistent,” Trump appears to have tapped into a popular misconception. While a majority of Muslim Americans in the Pew Research Center survey said that most Muslims who come to the U.S. want to adopt American customs and ways of life, just a third of Americans at large believe that. And in a Pew survey earlier this year, 25 percent of Americans said they believe at least half of all U.S. Muslims are anti-American, even as about half of Americans said they did not know any Muslims.

Pew estimated there were about 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. in 2015, meaning Muslims made up about 1 percent of the overall population. Pew estimates that share will double by 2050.

The Pew Research Center Survey

After analyzing the responses by Muslim Americans to a lengthy and varied set of questions, the Pew Research Center concluded that — contrary to Trump’s assertion — Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated.”

Pew Research Center, Aug. 30, 2011: Muslim Americans appear to be highly assimilated into American society and they are largely content with their lives. More than six-in-ten do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, and a similar number say that most Muslims coming to the U.S. today want to adopt an American way of life rather than remain distinctive from the larger society.

By overwhelming margins, Muslim Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives and rate their local communities as good places to live. And Muslim Americans are far more likely than the general public to express satisfaction with national conditions.

Let’s dig into the highlights of some of Pew’s specific findings:

  • Muslims are more likely than other immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Four out of five Muslim Americans are U.S. citizens, including 70 percent of those born outside the U.S. That is a much higher rate than the broader immigrant population in the U.S., as 47 percent of all foreign-born are citizens.
  • Nearly three-quarters of Muslim Americans (74 percent) believe that “[m]ost people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard.” That rate of optimism is higher than the general public, 62 percent.
  • A roughly similar percentage of Muslims and Christians in the U.S. say they think of themselves first as either Muslim (49 percent) or Christian (46 percent). Among white evangelicals, 70 percent said they identify first as Christian. A higher percentage of Christians as a whole say they identify as Americans first, 46 percent, compared with 26 percent among Muslim Americans. But Muslim Americans were more likely (18 percent versus 6 percent) to say they considered themselves Muslim and American equally.
  • A majority of Muslim Americans (56 percent) responded that most Muslims who come to the U.S. want to adopt American customs and ways of life, while 20 percent said those Muslim immigrants want to be distinct from the larger American society (16 percent said they wanted to do both).
  • About half of Muslim Americans say that only some or hardly any of their close friends are Muslims, while half say most or all of their close friends are Muslims.
  • More than six in 10 Muslim Americans see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, almost identical to the rates among U.S. Christians.
  • Half of Muslim immigrants say they display the American flag at home, at the office or on the car, and 33 percent of native-born Muslims reported doing so as well. Overall, displaying the American flag is less common among Muslim Americans (44 percent) than among the population as a whole (59 percent).

Assimilation is a complex issue, said Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, but on the whole, the Pew surveys show a “pretty significant embrace of American culture.” The high rates of citizenship, for one, suggest Muslims are “coming to the United States and committing to making a life here,” he said.

There are some differences between the general American population and Muslims on some issues. For example, Mohamed said, views on homosexuality are more conservative among Muslim Americans than the general population, but more accepting than, say, evangelical Christians, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Clearly, he said, there is a disconnect between the attitudes of Muslims about integration versus the perceptions of non-Muslim Americans about Muslim assimilation.

A Pew survey released in February found that 25 percent of Americans believe at least half of all U.S. Muslims are anti-American. That does not jibe with attitudes expressed in the Pew surveys. Indeed, Pew found that Muslim Americans are generally happy with their lives and the direction of the country, and more than three-quarters rate their community as an excellent or good place to live — roughly the same level of satisfaction among the U.S. population overall.

Experts on Islam

Experts on Islam we spoke to said they were not surprised at the disconnect between tangible signs of high-levels of Muslim assimilation and the opposite perception among many non-Muslim Americans. They say Trump’s comment feeds that disconnect.

In addition to what the surveys above said, they all said their personal and professional experience does not jibe with Trump’s claim.

“It’s another bizarre claim, one that I’m not sure I’ve actually heard before from a mainstream American politician,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow for the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It’s actually quite the opposite: The U.S. is a relative success story when it comes to Muslim integration.”

Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University and former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, said that Trump’s claim about low assimilation rates for Muslim Americans is not only inaccurate, but also “feeds into a stereotype already existing in the U.S.,” namely that a Muslim identity is incompatible with an American identity and values.

Ahmed, described by the BBC as “probably the world’s best known scholar on contemporary Islam,” conducted a comprehensive study of Muslims in the U.S., and published his findings in the 2010 book “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam.” In the book, Ahmed wrote (page 13) about encounters with conservative Muslims in the U.S. who were “aggressive in rejecting or ignoring ‘corrosive and corrupting’ American culture.” But in a phone interview, Ahmed told us he heard many more comments like, “the U.S. is the best place in the world to be a Muslim” and “I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.”

In his travels around the U.S. with his academic team, Ahmed said he met many Muslim Americans who encountered incidents of prejudice after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he said, they made a determination to stay in the U.S. Their decision to hang on to their American identity in the face of that stress speaks to their commitment to it, he said.

Ahmed points to other signs of assimilation: Muslims serving in the military, about 5,896 as of 2015, according to ABC News; the fact that there are now two Muslims serving in Congress; and a growing number of Muslim journalists, including CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser to the U.S. State Department for outreach with Muslim communities around the world, sees a near doubling of the number of mosques in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, as evidence that Muslim immigrants have committed to an identity as American Muslims.

“If you are building houses of worship, you want to become part of that community,” Amanullah told us in a phone interview. “It is a sign that Muslims in America decided to double down on their identity.”

“In my circle, I don’t see it,” Amanullah said of Trump’s claim about an unwillingness or inability on the part of Muslims in America to assimilate. “Their children are upwardly mobile. They don’t care for isolation and they look to embrace all that America has to offer.”

Amanullah and Ahmed both noted that the Muslim American experience is markedly different from the immigrant Muslim experience in Europe, an issue that was explored by the International Business Times last year. European relations with Muslim immigrants are colored by issues of colonialism, Ahmed said, which has made integration more difficult than in the U.S. The U.S., on the other hand, has a tradition of immigration that is more conducive to integration of Muslim Americans, the IBT article said.

Hamid, of Brookings, challenged the very notion that assimilation is a worthy pursuit.

“It’s also unclear why ‘assimilation’ should even be the goal,” said Hamid, author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. “That is not the American model. Religious and ethnic groups in the U.S. have not generally been expected to assimilate in the sense of giving up their heritage or traditions.”

That’s different from countries like France, Hamid said, where “an aggressive French secularism asks conservative Muslims to make a choice between their conservative religious practice and their Frenchness. To impose such a choice alienates Muslims and pushes them outside the fold, and it’s something the U.S. would do well to avoid.”

Again, we allow that assimilation can mean different things to different people. And while it is true that some Muslim immigrants may choose not to integrate into American society, Trump makes a blanket statement that assimilation among Muslim immigrants is “pretty close” to “nonexistent.” There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

— Robert Farley, with Zachary Gross