Ahmed Billoo is the product of an upper-middle-class Alhambra home. He grew up going to the local mosque on Fridays and holidays, playing sports with friends and enjoying the blessings of a comfortable American childhood.
Twelve months from completing a business degree at Cal State Long Beach, Billoo, 22, is fully Muslim and American, the two locked hand in hand.
And yet, he believes the righteousness of suicide bombers needs to be evaluated on a "case-by-case basis."
"Muslim or not Muslim, we all fear death. Blowing yourself up is not something everyone can do or something that everyone has the courage to do," said Billoo, the outgoing president of Long Beach's Muslim Student Association. "But don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should all go around America doing that; Palestine is a different situation. There is a huge difference between saying we should do it and saying I'm going to be a suicide bomber. I just think it is something that Islam justifies."
He is far from alone, according to a report last week by the Pew Research Center. In its first nationwide survey of Muslim Americans, about 26 percent of American Muslims ages 18 to 29 share Billoo's sentiment to varying degrees.
"I would have to say it's actually like 60 or 65 percent of the youth," Billoo added. "It's very rare that I meet someone who says suicide bombings in Palestine are not justified."
When Pew asked respondents whether "suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies," 78 percent of all U.S. Muslims flatly condemned such attacks; 9 percent declined to answer or said they didn't know. But 8 percent of all Muslims
While a chasm separates such sympathies from actual martyrdom
"What you have is a low-wage jihad taking place, but people are not paying attention to it," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. "These sentiments are seething, and at any time might erupt."
Overall, however, the survey of 1,050 Muslims was encouraging.
The Pew survey, conducted through telephone interviews from January through April, estimated 2.35 million U.S. Muslims
The majority think of themselves as American Muslims, not Muslim Americans; believe women are treated better here than in Muslim nations, and are worried about Islamic extremism. And 61 percent said Israel and Palestinian rights could coexist
"What the survey overwhelmingly shows is that the Muslim community is the one that we at PJA have experienced. It is not the one that some people have heatedly claimed constitutes a fifth column in this country," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which recently created with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) the interfaith dialogue, NewGround.
Muslim American leaders have highlighted these positive findings
They said reported sympathies for suicide bombings sounded an alarm, but, as Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) noted, they weren't any more extreme than the 24 percent of Americans who, according to a recent poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes, believe attacks against civilians are "often or sometimes justified."
"The word suicide bombing is very loaded and creates images of terrorism," said Ayloush, executive director of CAIR's Los Angeles area chapter. "A lot of the young people, what I hear from them, it is not something that relates to our American scene, but it is a view about a people under occupation responding to an occupation, and it is not the civilians but the occupier."
Despite Middle Eastern fatwahs to the contrary, the Quran explicitly prohibits any transgressions against civilians, said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic law professor at the UCLA School of Law. These limitations range from torching a noncombatant's tree to killing a rival warrior's wife.
But some Muslims miss this point, Abou El Fadl said, "because they confuse politics and ethics."
"Human beings have the remarkable ability to reach results that they want to reach," he said. "In the case of Islam, the argument goes something like this: Yes it is true that our prophet has all these prohibitions; yes it is true that our prophet acted in a fashion that respected the sanctity of civilians at war; yes it is true that the Quran prohibits transgressing, but
Since before Sept. 11, 2001, prominent Muslim American leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorist attacks. Last summer, in response to accusations that one of MPAC's founders was a closet extremist who had referred to the "butchers" of Israel, the organization bought an ad in the Los Angeles Times that affirmed "we condemn terrorism in all forms, regardless of the identity of the victim or of the perpetrator."
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bends black and white into shades of gray, because many Muslims don't consider Israelis, particularly aggressive settlers, to be civilians.
"Islam believes life is precious, but we also believe in justice. We are not just going to let someone come into our house and kick us out. We are allowed to fight back," said Billoo, who is of Pakistani descent. "Obviously, the more conventional combat is preferred. But suicide bombings is a last resort."