The Muslim population riddle

Hampered by Islam's relative newness in America, as well as political sensitivities, experts struggle and spar over estimates of the number of Muslims practicing here.

Published October 31, 2001 5:49PM (EST)

How many Muslims are there in America?

The answer to that seemingly straightforward question is proving difficult to answer. And following the events of Sept. 11, attempts to estimate figures have produced palpable friction between Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups, each touting its own population surveys and methodologies, and turning a typically scholarly pursuit into a politically charged one.

The results, says Dave Roozen, director of the Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research, is an unprecedented battle between faith groups openly questioning the size of communities.

"Other inter-religious battles were fought a long time ago," he says. "This is the only one still ongoing. Each side brings its experts and each have somewhat plausible arguments. On one level, the political issues are the same. It's just much more intense now, and the stakes are more visible."

Last spring a Muslim-sponsored study, "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," claimed there were between 6 and 7 million Muslims in America. The report, although part of a larger study of American congregations called "Faith Communities Today" coordinated by Hartford Seminary, was sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, who leads the largest African-American Muslim organizations, and the Islamic Circle of North America.

The study's sometimes startling findings, that the number of Muslims associated with mosques had increased 300 percent since 1994, certainly bolstered the notion that Islam was among the country's fastest-growing religions.

But it also raised eyebrows, particularly within America's Jewish community, which numbers roughly 6 million. As the Baltimore Jewish Times reported last spring, "Jewish leaders worry that this [Muslim population] surge will generate political influence that could skew U.S. Mideast policy."

In fact, "The Mosque in America" report came just months after Arab and Muslim groups weighed in with their first ever presidential election endorsement, signaling a new political emergence for the group as a sought-after voting block. (The groups endorsed Republican George W. Bush.)

"There's no question those numbers were troubling," says Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. It is particularly troubling, he says, for a Jewish American community whose numbers are shrinking, thanks to marriages outside the faith, and lower birth rates.

On Oct. 23, the American Jewish Committee responded by releasing its own report, "Estimating the Muslim Population in the United States." Written by Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the study suggested the more accurate number of Muslims in America was just 1,876,000.

Wrote Smith: "Even if high-side estimates based on local surveys, figures from mosques, and ancestry and immigration statistics are given more weight than the survey-based numbers, it is hard to accept estimates that Muslims are greater than 1 percent of the population, or 2,814,000."

The survey had immediate implications for the media. Back on Oct. 20, the New York Times reported the American Muslim population at between "6 million to 7 million." Days after the AJC estimate though, the paper included a new caveat suggesting the actual domestic Muslim population was "estimated variously at 2 million to 6 million." (Actually, other estimates run much higher than 6 million, all the way up to 10 million.)

American Muslim defenders suggest the study's conclusion is an attempt by nervous Jewish leaders to marginalize the Muslim community.

"The message of the [AJC] report is, 'You shouldn't be so concerned about the Muslim community because it's not that big,'" says Ibsan Bagby, the Shaw University international studies professor who oversaw "The Mosque in America" study.

American Jewish Committee spokesman Kenneth Bandler denies the charge. "We did not seek out to diminish the numbers of the Muslim community. And this was not politically motivated as some in the Muslim community have suggested."

Bandler says the group had been considering conducting a survey ever since the "Mosque In America" report was released last spring, but only commissioned it following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "because there was understandably an intense focus on the Muslim community in this country. And we were looking for accuracy in the numbers being used. If Tom Smith came back and said, 'There are 5 million Muslims here,' that's it, we would have accepted it," says Bandler.

Such results though, would have been very surprising, since Smith, a well-respected researcher, has been a vocal critic of Muslim population estimates in the past. Quoted last year in the Los Angeles Times, he dismissed the notion there were 6 million Muslims in America as "completely invalid." At the time, Smith suggested the number of American Muslim adults was closer to 950,000.

There are many reasons why getting a good read on America's Muslim population remains difficult. First of all, statisticians admit it's often difficult to accurately measure tiny slices of America's overall population.

Perhaps more importantly, the Muslim population here is a relatively new one. Whereas the Jewish community in America, for example, has been solidified and well organized in the United States for the better part of the last century, and has a firm handle on its numbers, Muslim immigrants only began arriving in the United States in large numbers after the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened American borders to countries all over the world. Today, tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants, the majority of whom arrive from South Asia, come to America each year. That constant flow of newcomers makes it somewhat difficult to pinpoint the population.

Then there is the fact that Islam is not built on a hierarchy of the kind that in other faiths often takes it upon itself to calculate population. Hartford Seminary's Roozen notes that 20 years ago during research it was clear that the Catholic Church, although well established in America, "didn't have a clue" about its population.

"Somebody would call around to dioceses and ask for figures and some of it was pure guesswork. They'd say, 'How many Irish are there? Well, that's how many Catholics we have.'"

Since then, he says, the nation's bishops have worked hard to come up with more accurate numbers. But in the Muslim faith there simply are no equivalent, centralized organizations, which is by design.

Also adding to the confusion is the fact that the conversion rate among American-born citizens, and primarily among African-Americans, continues to be relatively high, leading to the constantly changing number.

That too, is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College, when Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X split with the Nation and converted to Sunni, or orthodox, Islam in 1964, there were only 1,000 African-American Sunni Muslims in America. Since then, it's become one of the fastest growing religions within black America, with roughly 20,000 conversions taking place each year.

But like the general Muslim community, estimates for the African-American Muslim portion of the population vary wildly. The Muslim American Society, headed by Imam W. Deen Mohammed, claims 2 million members.

But last week another report was released that estimated the African-American Muslim population to be just a fraction of that. Conducted by the Graduate Center for the City University of New York, the project, based on random samples, suggested there are only 1.1 million Muslim adults in America, and that 17 percent of those are converts.

Considering that best estimates today suggest 70 percent of American converts to Islam are African-Americans, that would mean, according to City University of New York, that there are approximately 130,000 African-American adult Muslims in America.

Critics scoff at that number, suggesting there may be that many just in the New York metropolitan area, let alone the entire United States. Professor Mamiya, who helped with some of the "Mosque In America" research, admits the 2 million estimate often cited for African-Americans is too high, and says the more accurate number is 1 million.

But 130,000 adults? "That number is way, way off," complains Bagby, who says trying to count Muslims in general via random telephone calls is suspect, both because they represent such a small portion of the general population, and because Muslims, especially recent immigrants and African-Americans, are often reluctant to talk about their religious affiliation with strangers on the phone.

The Muslim population riddle stems in part from the fact that in order to maintain separation of church and state, the U.S. Census doesn't ask questions about religious affiliation. That means researchers have to come up with other ways to measure the size of different faith communities.

Working with the Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research, Bagby's "Mosque in America" study used what's called a key informant questionnaire. It contacted leaders at 631 of the country's 1,209 mosques, and received responses from 416. It then asked for various attendance figures at the mosque. The results suggested 1,625 members were associated, in very general terms, with each mosque, creating a total Muslim mosque population of approximately 2 million.

Although it only took up one sentence of the final 63-page study, the most crucial calculation was when Bagby then multiplied the 2 million number by a factor of 3 in order to cover Muslims who don't attend mosque. "That's the guess part of it," Bagby concedes. "Multiplying by 3 has been my rule of thumb forever. I'm not willing to say it's perfect. But I'm also not willing to sacrifice my academic future for something that I can't honestly defend. Six million is reasonable. I just don't think 2.8 million is in the ballpark for our research."

Smith, working on behalf of the Jewish American Committee at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, disagrees. In his report he argues the initial methodology was flawed because key informants tend to exaggerate attendance figures, noting that the 1,600 people per mosque figure is up 235 percent since just 1994. Additionally, he argues there was no sound basis on which to multiply the initial 2 million number by a factor of 3 in order to come up with 6 million Muslims.

"That's a very difficult transition to make," says Smith, who instead took a more traditional number-crunching approach, using different Immigration and Naturalization Service and General Social Survey statistics, to come up with his own number.

More studies which may shed additional light on the Muslim population question are currently in the works. But for now the question remains shadowed by controversy.

"Unfortunately it's turned into this political competition," says Mamiya. "All of this has some political motivation behind it [on both sides]. You can't get away from it. As scholars we'd all just like to know the answer."

But that's the problem. Because the fact remains, "No one knows how many Muslims there are," says Roozen.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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