Journal/Islam: Muslims in the United States

Conservative estimates of the US Muslim population based on the CIA Factbook set it at about 1.5 million (or around .6% of the US population, which was 307 million in July 2009).  More liberal estimates claim that the Muslim population of the US is as high as 6 million (see the 2008 USA Today article on the “Muslim Census”).  The Pew Research Center, whose 2007 report entitled “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” is unprecedented in both its depth and breadth of analysis, claims that the Muslim population in the year of its survey was around 2.35 million.  Some of the most notable findings in the Pew report concern the ethnic heterogeneity of Muslim Americans (no single ethnic group constitutes a majority), their predominantly middle-class identification, and their mostly mainstream political views (as reflected in the title of the report).

As with any religion in the US, there are many Muslim American sub-groups based on class, gender, age, race, country of origin, and other social factors.  Two thirds of the population is foreign-born, while roughly 20% of the remaining native-born population are converts and/or African American.  Although the majority of Muslim Americans are middle class, some class differences fall along ethnic lines; nearly 70% of Pakistani American Muslims rate their economic situation as excellent or good, while only 40% of Arab American Muslims and 30% of African American Muslims consider their economic situation to be good or excellent.  When looking at the Muslim American youth population, religious identity is often prominent, to the extent that in some cases this identity mutes or diminishes ethnic differences.

While the strong religious attachments of Muslim Americans has been a source of concern for some in the US, who fear the spread of Islam, Pew statistics indicate that the prominence of religious identity amongst Muslim Americans reflects a broader trend in American society.  Nearly half of Muslim Americans surveyed considered themselves to be Muslim before American, 28% of respondents consider themselves American first, and a significant 20% responded both American and Muslim to the question.  These results compare with the Protestant response to this question, in which nearly half of the respondents said their religious identity takes precedent, while the other half said their American identity does.  Finally, when Muslim Americans were asked questions on their political views, the Pew report concluded that they are “moderate with respect to many issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”

There has been a marked increase in US public affairs interest in Muslim Americans for two distinct, but not unrelated reasons: 1) connecting to the Muslim American population provides a possible bridge to building better international relations with the Muslim World, which will enhance the US’s image overseas; and 2) working with Muslims has been crucial to US domestic intelligence operations aimed at dealing with Muslims in the US as a security threat.  This latter tendency has in fact lead to increased tensions as the FBI seeks to establish operatives within mosques and carry out surveillance on Muslim communities around the country.  See for example, the 2009 New York Times article “Muslims Say FBI Tactics Sow Anger and Fear.”  These positions have lead to a dichotomy in reporting on Muslim Americans, who are portrayed sometimes as an important element of the religious and ethnic diversity of the US (see for example the 2009 New York Times article on the expressions of identity through the art of Muslim American women).  But more often then not, Muslims in the US are represented as a growing and constant danger within the national borders (see for example the 2009 Los Angeles Times article “US Sees Homegrown Muslim Extremism as a Rising Threat”).

Indeed, a significant amount of post-9/11 reporting on Muslims and Islam in the mainstream media reveals intense discrimination against Muslims in the US.  Media coverage of Muslims in the US documents an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, which has also been noted by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in its Civil Rights Report.  But the media has also been a source of discriminatory practices, often employing stereotypes and caricatures of Muslims in its reporting.  In a 2008 Newsweek article entitled “Today’s Boo Radley: Muslim Americans,” the author argues that the way in which both Republican and Democrat 2008 presidential candidates refused to court the Muslim American vote reflects the continuing prejudice that exists on both sides of the political spectrum towards this community.  This tendency illustrates the persistent suspicion that many Americans feel towards their Muslim compatriots.  In a 2007 article, Paul Barrett analyzes this suspicion.  Barrett, who has interviewed many prominent Muslim Americans, is regularly asked by non-Muslims in the US “why Muslim Americans don’t seem to condemn outspokenly terrorism.” His response, in essence, is that there is blame to be had on both sides. On the one hand, some leading Muslim American individuals and organizations have condemned terrorism, but have given ambiguous or much delayed responses. On the other hand, the mainstream American media has not been very receptive to those Muslim American voices which have unequivocally condemned terrorism from the start.  By recognizing shortcomings on both sides, Barrett’s article offers a wider frame for understanding the media discourse on Muslim Americans.

Nada Zohdy and Salah D. Hassan (2010)

Related Articles:

“Muslim in America” Time Photo essay.  Photographer Ziyah Gafic provides an intimate portrait of America’s Islamic community

“Being American  — and Muslim,” Time April 4, 2008

“‘Making American Muslim Theater,” Time.

“With more than a year gone by, American Muslims debate Islam, intolerance, terrorism and the significance of Sept. 11,” New York Times, December 7, 2002

A.C.L.U. Report Says Antiterror Fight Undercuts Liberty of Muslim Donors, New York Times June 15, 2009
Closing on a Dream, New York Times May 3, 2009

“American Muslim Clerics Seek a Modern Middle Ground,” New York Times, 2006

Religious Protection,” New Republic December 2005,