America’s Muslims Get a Survey of Their Own

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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The Jewish and Muslim communities share many characteristics as minority religious groups in America — but until this week, American Muslims have had nothing like the Jewish population surveys that have documented the size and shape of the Jewish community for the past 40 years.

That changed Tuesday when the Pew Research Center released what is being billed as the first comprehensive demographic survey of American Muslims. The survey reports a figure of 2.35 million American Muslims, significantly lower than the estimates ranging from 6 million to 12 million that have been cited by Muslim advocacy groups.

The study draws out a number of similarities between American Muslims and Jews, including the fact that both communities draw from scattered nationalities and retain some semblance of unity despite varying approaches to religion. But, researchers say, the relatively late appearance of such a study underscores some of the differences between Muslims and Jews in America.

“The [Muslim] community is still relatively new in the United States,” said Farid Senzai, an adviser to the Pew survey and director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The institute was founded in 2002 to study the Muslim population.

“In terms of actual organizational capacity, the Muslim community has been quite weak,” Senzai added. “The Jewish community has been here much longer, and they’re much better established.”

The major influx of Muslim immigrants began in the 1970s. The first comprehensive Jewish demographic survey was conducted in the 1970s, and the national arm of the network of local Jewish charitable federations has sponsored follow-up efforts.

These studies have been a point of contention in the Jewish community, setting off debates about intermarriage and about the community’s true size. It does not appear that it will be different in the Muslim community, given that the new study challenges the assumptions of many Islamic advocacy groups and more informal research efforts.

“This will trigger a big debate among the intellectuals who are interested in the Muslim community,” said Sulayman Nyang, a partner in the Georgetown University-based Muslims in American Public Square Project.

The research with which Nyang previously has been involved suggested that there were 6 million American Muslims. That number was extrapolated from counts of mosque membership and sporadic telephone surveys.

The most recent National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000 and 2001, was criticized by experts who said that it undercounted American Jews. Senzai says that the Jewish problems were taken into account as the Pew team designed its study.

“We wanted to make sure that those mistakes weren’t made in this case, so this wasn’t criticized on methodological grounds,” Senzai said.

The survey reached 1,050 Muslims nationwide. The Pew team finally estimated that 0.6% of the American population is Muslim. According to the survey, the American Muslim population is 24% Arab, 18% South Asian and 35% American born.

The study found that the Muslim population is much more integrated into American society than in Western European countries. The percentage of respondents who are low income is only 2% greater than in the general population, while in Britain it is 22% greater and in France it is 18% greater. Of American Muslims, 71% believe that those who want to get ahead can. The most disillusioned segment of the population is African American Muslims, with only 13% of that cohort expressing satisfaction with the national condition.

In America, 54% of the respondents believe that the government singles out Muslims for surveillance. Only 26% of the respondents believe that the American war on terror is a sincere effort; 61% said that Israel and Palestine could find a way to coexist. By way of comparison, that figure is 17% in Lebanon and 67% among Americans at large. The percentage of respondents who rarely or never believe that suicide bombing can be justified is 83.

Until this point, some of the most exacting work on Islamic demographics has actually come from a researcher who was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee.

Tom Smith, head of the National Opinion Research Center, said he was given Jewish support for his research because there was “some concern that the numbers of reported Muslims was being greatly exaggerated.”

The numbers given by Muslim advocacy groups — ranging from 6 million to 12 million — would make the Muslim community larger than the Jewish community, which numbers between 5 million and 6 million, according to national surveys.

Smith’s work for the AJCommittee, which estimated the Muslim community at between 2 million and 3 million, was cited approvingly by the new study. Smith, in turn, said the new study appeared to be reliable.

Even within the Pew team, though, there was debate. Senzai said that while he is behind the 2.35 million figure, he believes that the actual number of Muslims is probably higher. In any case, Senzai said he hopes that the study pushes the Muslim community to take more interest in such research.

“The Muslim community has been focused on survival — building mosques and dealing with civil-liberties issues,” Senzai said. “I think that the community will soon realize that these types of studies are absolutely crucial for the real facts to come out about this community.”

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