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Juliette Kayyem

Common ground for Muslims and Jews

By Juliette Kayyem
August 9, 2011

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IN AN irony that’s only possible in America, it turns out that the views of American Jews offer a decent guide to how American Muslims think.

The two religions are often portrayed as mutually hostile. Congressional hearings about “Muslim radicalization,’’ the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, and the “anti-sharia’’ legislation proliferating in a number of states all seem calculated to amplify the differences between Muslims and other religious groups.

Yet new polling by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center suggests that the cultural divide between Muslims and other Americans is smaller than one might think - and the affinity between Muslim and Jewish attitudes surprisingly great.

In the two years since President Bush left office, the proportion of Muslim Americans who consider themselves “thriving’’ has increased more than any other religious group. As a whole, they do not view themselves as outcasts - as many Islamic immigrant groups in Europe do - even though they’re well aware of the negative attention they’ve received since 9/11. This is tremendously good news for a nation whose policies could well have produced widespread alienation and suspicion among Muslim Americans.

Yet Muslims’ experience in America isn’t unique. The simultaneous polling of Jewish Americans, meanwhile, raises an intriguing possibility: Maybe Jews, a religious minority whose own loyalty was once considered suspect, are more sympathetic to their modern-day counterparts as a result.

It is not surprising that 93 percent of all Muslims believe that Muslim Americans are loyal to the United States; what is surprising is that Jewish Americans are much more likely than any other non-Muslim faith to see US Muslims as loyal. Eighty percent of Jewish Americans have trust in Muslim Americans as Americans. (Only 56 percent of Protestants and Mormons said the same.) Muslims and Jews are the most likely to believe that Muslim Americans have no sympathy for Al Qaeda. Indeed, it’s Protestants as a whole, representing more than half the US population, who have high levels of distrust and concern over Muslims in America.

In 1905, William Brandeis, whose American-ness was suspect because he was the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, wrote “What Loyalty Demands’’ - a powerful argument that adherence to his own religious values was the greatest form of fidelity to America. The obligation of loyalty, he argued, demands civic engagement and participation in government, which he saw as characteristics of his own faith.

Over a century later, similar loyalty questions persist for Muslims. They feel obliged, because they share a religion with Al Qaeda, to prove their allegiance more than others do. And as with the falafel salesman near my house who hung a hundred US flags and played country music for months after Sept. 11, this can easily take on ostentatious forms. But loyalty, as Brandeis suggested, is best measured by how citizens of religious beliefs participate in society, not in some overt display of allegiance.

It was appropriate, then, that at about the same time Gallup released its polling, the Obama administration put forth a loftily titled domestic anti-radicalization strategy - “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.’’ The 10-page document finally recognizes that the government knows far less about what’s happening inside any religious group - whether Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics - than members of those communities do. And it ought to be that way.

The simplicity of the document has been roundly criticized by fear-mongers who wanted a more hard-charging approach to the terror threat. Yet the approach recognizes that the majority of engagement with communities has little to do with national security. The best use of government resources to avoid radicalization is in supporting the very civic engagement - in job creation, education, health, and civil rights - that is already occurring.

Engaging Muslims in ways unrelated to national-security issues reflects both the reality of their experience and how they perceive themselves. That surely will contribute to peace in our nation, whether the fear is Islamic terrorists or some future unknown threat.

But then, maybe Jewish Americans knew this already.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem