The most striking finding of the PEW Research Centerâ€™s one million dollar survey of American Muslims is that the population of the American Muslim community is no more than 2.4 million.
While the media concentrated on other findings of the study and covered the survey with such headlines as:
â€œU.S. Muslims well assimilated, content with life, poll findsâ€
â€œIn many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream Americaâ€
(Christian Science Monitor)
â€œMost U.S. Muslims moderatesâ€
(San Jose Mercury News)
â€œAmerican Muslims reject extremesâ€
â€œU.S. Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremismâ€
Some media outlets chose to incorporate a selective analysis of the report in their stories, projecting a sensationalized and pessimistic view:
â€œA shocking revelation about U.S. Muslims. A quarter of younger Muslim Americans support suicide bombings in some circumstances.â€
â€œBombshell:US Muslims in new terror poll shockerâ€
(New York Post)
â€œSome Young Muslims Support Bombingsâ€
â€œMany young US Muslims justify suicide bombingsâ€
(World Peace Herald)
However, the most important finding of the report regarding the demography of the American Muslims was ignored with passing reference.
Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, insists that the PEW survey data puts an estimate of the total population at about 2.4 million–which is closer to the estimates announced by the American Jewish Committee in October 2001. The AJC studyâ€“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 survey, just like the AJC report, seems the latest attempt to undercut the influence of American Muslims. It looks another desperate attempt to discount the role of American Muslims.
The PEW survey, titled Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream, claims to be the most extensive, covers 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.
PEWâ€™s demographic figures of American Muslims already made an entry into the Wikipedia encyclopediaâ€™s article on American Muslim population estimates. Surely in the future Pew numbers will be quoted as a reference when estimate of American Muslims will be 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 countryâ€™s Jewish population, which is estimated at 6 million. â€œItâ€™s a political question: How does it sway votes?â€ he argued.
The American Jewish Committeeâ€™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 â€œmythâ€ 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. â€œSix million has a special resonance,â€ Harris wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine. â€œIt would mean that Muslims outnumber Jews in the U.S. and it would buttress calls for a redefinition of Americaâ€™s heritage as â€˜Judeo-Christian-Muslim,â€™ a stated goal of some Muslim leaders.â€
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 â€œassociated in any wayâ€ with the average mosqueâ€™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.
It may be recalled that the former Congressman, Paul Findley, in his book Silent No More: Confronting Americaâ€™s False Images of Islam, estimates that about 3.2 million Muslims turned out to vote and 65% voted for President Bush in the November 2000 elections. According to Mr. Findley â€œBest 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.â€
Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, argues that since the U.S. census does not ask religious identification, there is a real debate about how many Muslim Americans there are, and we can enter that debate with the results of our rigorous survey. â€œOur survey projects 1.5 million adult Muslims, 18 years of age and older. In percentage terms, thatâ€™s 0.6 of a percent. Thatâ€™s a little bit higher than most other sample surveys, which have ranged from 0.2 of a percent to 0.5 of a percent. Our new data, when combined with the Census Bureau data on immigrantsâ€™ nativity and nationality, puts an estimate of the total population at about 2.4 million.â€
The PEW study finds American Muslims a diverse community. Two-thirds of the people it interviewed were foreign-born. Arabs, Pakistanis and other South Asians make up the largest percentage of the foreign-born population. Native-born Muslims are 35 percent of the public, and they are mostly converts. They werenâ€™t born as Muslims. African Americans make up 20 percent of the Muslim American public, and two-thirds of the native-born public. So the native-born public is predominantly African American.
It is important not to overlook the positive aspects of the study. The poll clearly showed that American Muslims are mainstream, highly educated, middle-class people who believe that hard work pays off.
It also confirmed that, overall, American Muslims have a positive view of the larger society. They are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives in the United States, and most say their communities are excellent or good places to live. The survey found that Muslim Americans reject extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in western European countries. In fact, 78 percent of U.S. Muslims say that suicide bombings against civilians are never justified.
In psychology of mass media there is a saying: â€œWhoever controls the questions….controls the answers.â€
The initial phase of the questionnaire included neutral or innocuous questions about satisfaction with the community, personal happiness, and personal characteristics such as home ownership, entrepreneurship, and newspaper subscription. After these items, respondents were asked about their religious affiliation, choosing from a list that included major Western traditions such as Protestantism and Catholicism but also non-Western traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Respondents who identified as Muslim proceeded to the substantive portion of the questionnaire, and those who were not Muslim were asked if anyone in the household practiced a different religion; in 58 households where a non-Muslim answered the phone, it was determined that there was a Muslim living in the household, and 52 of these subsequently yielded a completed interview.
While the survey has been represented in the media as proof of moderation among American Muslims, the actual results should yield the opposite conclusion. If, as the Pew study estimates, there are 2.4 million Muslims in America, that means there are a substantial number of people in the U.S. who think suicide bombing is sometimes justified. Similarly, if 5% of American Muslims support al Qaeda, thatâ€™s more than 100,000 people.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine: American Muslim Perspective â€“ www.amperspective.com.