The Politics of American Muslim demographics

On Thursday July 26, PEW Research Center released the findings of its 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims which estimated the population of American Muslims at 3.35 million. This estimate is projection of Pew's survey of 2011 which estimated the population of American Muslims at 2.7 million that was actually a projection of the Pew survey of 2007.

The Pew press release said: "Muslims represent a relatively small but rapidly growing portion of the U.S. religious landscape. Pew Research Center estimates that there are 3.35 million Muslims of all ages living in the U.S. – up from about 2.75 million in 2011 and 2.35 million in 2007. This means Muslims currently make up roughly 1% of the U.S. population."

Tellingly, the 2007 estimate was closer to the estimates announced by the American Jewish Committee in October 2001. The AJC study – titled Estimating the Muslim Population in the United States – claimed that the best estimate of Muslims in the United States is 2.8 million at most, compared to the 6 or 7 million figure used by many researchers and Muslim organizations.

The PEW surveys, just like the AJC report, seem to undercut the influence of American Muslims. It looks another desperate attempt to discount the role of American Muslims.

The PEW survey of 2007, titled “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” claimed to be the most extensive, covered the views of 1,050 Muslims interviewed in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi. According to Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, the Washington-based organization spent $1 million on the poll. It paid $50 to each of the 1,050 Muslims surveyed.

The PEW survey of 2011, titled, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism,” is based on the interviews with 1,033 Muslim American. Interviews were conducted by telephone between April 14 and July 22, 2011 by the research firm of Abt SRBI. Interviews were conducted in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims was conducted Jan. 23 to May 2, 2017, on landlines and cell phones, among a representative sample of 1,001 Muslim adults living in the United States.

The PEW’s misleading demographic figures of American Muslims already made an entry into the Wikipedia encyclopedia’s article on American Muslim population estimates. Pew numbers are now quoted as authentic reference when estimate of American Muslims is given.

Religious denominations, like all interest groups, can gain or lose political clout based on perceptions of their size, according to J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. In the case of the U.S. Muslim community, Melton says, its efforts to influence policy in the Middle East would get a boost if it were viewed as being larger than the country’s Jewish population, which is estimated at 6 million. “It’s a political question: How does it sway votes?” he argued.

The American Jewish Committee’s executive director David Harris has warned that the increasingly visible American Muslim lobby posed a challenge to U.S.-Israel relations. In an article published by the Jerusalem Report in May 2001, Harris urged American Jewry to unite with Israel to battle against the growing Arab and Muslim lobbies here and the challenge they present to long-standing U.S. support for Israel. Harris cited the “myth” of high Muslim population figures as one tactic Muslims are using to advance their position.

The American Jewish Committee and other groups estimate the number of Jews in this country is about 6 million. “Six million has a special resonance,” Harris wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine. “It would mean that Muslims outnumber Jews in the U.S. and it would buttress calls for a redefinition of America’s heritage as ‘Judeo-Christian-Muslim,’ a stated goal of some Muslim leaders.”

The American Jewish Committee survey of Muslim population was conducted by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago who questioned the study, “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” released in April 2001 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The CAIR study reported that the number of mosques rose by about 25 percent, to more than 1,200, from 1994 to 2000. Based on reports of attendance at some mosques, researchers estimated the number of American Muslims at 6 million to 7 million. The project surveyed individual mosques, finding that 340 adults and children participated at the average mosque and that another 1,629 were “associated in any way” with the average mosque’s activities, yielding a figure of 2 million Muslims. The authors then adjusted the estimate to 6 million to 7 million overall to take into account family members and unaffiliated Muslims.

Based in part on that report, most media organizations, as well as the White House and the State Department, have said that there are at least 6 million Muslims in the country.

CAIR's 2001 study findings were reaffirmed by another major survey of the Mosques in the United States. On February 29, 2012 a comprehensive study of the mosques - “The American Mosque 2011: Basic Characteristics of the American Mosque, Attitudes of Mosque Leaders” - was released.

Sponsors of the U.S. Mosque Survey 2011 include: The Hartford Institute for Religion Research (Hartford Seminary), the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North American (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).

The U.S. Mosque Survey 2011 was part of a larger study of American congregations called Faith Communities Today (FACT), which is a project of Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a multi-faith coalition of denominations and faith groups.

One of the major finding of the study is related to the estimated population of American Muslims. The study finds:

"Muslims who attend Eid Prayer (the high holiday prayers after Ramadan and Hajj) increased from about 2 million in 2000 to about 2.6 million in 2011. The total Muslim population cannot be determined by this figure, but it does call into question the low estimates of 1.1-2.4 million Muslims in America. If there are 2.6 million Muslims who pray the Eid prayer, then the total Muslim population should be closer to the estimates of up to 7 million."

It may be recalled that the former Congressman, Paul Findley, in his book Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam, estimates that about 3.2 million Muslims turned out for vote and 65 percent voted for President Bush in November 2000 elections. According to Mr. Findley “Best estimates put the national Muslim population at seven million, 70 as the percentage of those eligible to vote, and 65 as the percentage of those eligible who actually voted. This means that the national turnout of Muslims on Nov.7, 2000 came to 3.2 million.”

It is important not to overlook the positive aspects of the PEW survey  which clearly showed that American Muslims are mainstream, highly educated, middle-class people who believe that hard work pays off.

According to the Pew 2017 survey, Muslim Americans express a persistent streak of optimism and positive feelings. Overwhelmingly, they say they are proud to be Americans, believe that hard work generally brings success in this country and are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives – even if they are not satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole.

Nearly two-thirds of Muslim Americans, however, say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. today. And about three-quarters say Donald Trump is unfriendly toward Muslims in America. On both of these counts, Muslim opinion has undergone a stark reversal since 2011, when Barrack Obama was president, at which point most Muslims thought the country was headed in the right direction and viewed the president as friendly toward them.

In addition, half of Muslim Americans say it has become harder to be Muslim in the U.S. in recent years. And 48% say they have experienced at least one incident of discrimination in the past 12 months.

However, Muslims in the United States perceive a lot of discrimination against their religious group, are leery of Trump and think their fellow Americans do not see Islam as part of mainstream U.S. society.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( email: