- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
This publication is now archived.
Since 9/11, the U.S. war on terror abroad and domestic terror incidents involving U.S. and immigrant Muslims have focused attention on Islam in the United States. Muslims face increased scrutiny and backlash on issues ranging from mosques and sharia law to questions of terrorism. U.S. Muslims are more affluent, educated, and culturally integrated than Muslims in Western Europe, but some experts warn that this atmosphere of mistrust can fuel feelings of alienation. Others say the United States has weathered other bitter discussions about ethnic and religious integration and that the debate about Muslims in America will likely diminish over time.
U.S. Muslim Demographics
The U.S. Census doesn’t collect information about religions, but estimates on the number of Muslims in the United States range from fewer than two million people to as many as seven million. At the highest estimates, the percentage of Muslims in the United States would represent about 2 percent of the population. A Pew survey from January 2011 on the future of the global Muslim population shows the Americas have the lowest population of Muslims globally. Continental Europe has the next lowest population, at an estimated forty-four million.
More than 60 percent of U.S. Muslims are immigrants, and of those, more than 70 percent are U.S. citizens, according to the Pew data. The Muslim population in the United States, as in Europe, is expected to double by 2030 because of immigration and higher birth rates, according to the Pew survey.
An August 2011 Pew survey and Gallup’s project on Islam both find the U.S. Muslim community ethnically and racially diverse, representing an estimated seventy-seven countries. "The Muslim community in the United States could be seen as a ’microcosm’ of the Muslim world" (PDF), Mounir Azzaoui notes in a 2009 American Institute for Contemporary German Studies issue brief on Muslim integration in Germany and the United States. "This circumstance can be considered particular to the United States; nowhere else in the world will one find such a diverse collection of Muslims."
Surveys show that African Americans, Arabs, and South Asians comprise more than three-quarters of all Muslims in the United States. South Asians make up the fastest growing Muslim immigrant population. Around 60 percent of native-born U.S. Muslims are African Americans.
Brookings Fellow Peter Skerry notes that the "most visible and important" differences among U.S. Muslims lie between immigrants and African American Muslims, who "gather in their own mosques and have their own distinctive styles of worship." He also says that various groups have different worldviews based on their countries of origin. "These differences make it highly problematic to speak of any single Muslim-American community," Skerry writes. "Indeed, the imperative of overcoming fragmentation and forging a ’Muslim-American’ political identity explains a good deal of the behavior of both the leaders and their organizations."
The U.S. Muslim population is also dispersed (PDF), with mosques located in near-equal percentages in each region of the country, according to a 2001 study, which is the most recent available. A 2010 Pew report on mosque-building controversies shows that the number of mosques in the United States has increased from 1,209 to 1,825 in the decade since the 2001 report. Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky who is updating the mosque study, says mosques had been largely located in urban centers as well as college towns supporting Muslim students in the ’60s and ’70s, and that those students have since matured, grown more affluent, and dispersed around the country. He notes the "surprising" growth of mosques in small towns.
"Many of the disputes over mosques reflect the fact that Islamic centers and mosques are appearing in places where they are unexpected, where the local population didn’t anticipate that that would happen," says John Green, a research adviser for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Bagby says older mosques tend to be more diverse, though they may have been started by one ethnic group. For example, he notes the Albanian Islamic Center located outside of Detroit, which is "hardly Albanian anymore." Newer mosques tend to be either created by established Muslims branching out into new communities or by newly arrived immigrants, who often wish to start their own, Bagby says.
The percentage of U.S. Muslims in individual income and education brackets tracks closely to that of the rest of the U.S. population, surveys suggest. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, U.S. Muslims have the second-highest level of education among major religious groups in the United States. Almost 50 percent of Muslims identify with religion before their U.S. identity (nearly half of U.S. Christians polled by Gallup also identified with their religion first). That percentage is significantly higher than percentages of Muslims recognizing national identity first in Europe and in many Muslim nations, according to Pew polls.
Surveys also show U.S. Muslims overall are more affluent and educated than Muslim communities in Western Europe, which have had significant issues with poverty and integration. For example, a 2007 Pew poll found just 2 percent of U.S. Muslims in the lowest income bracket, while Muslims in Britain, France, and Germany made up around 20 percent of those countries’ low-income populations.
Azzaoui writes that unlike the low-skilled labor immigration that Western Europe attracted following World War II, Muslim immigration to the United States during that time was in pursuit of college and advanced degrees. He suggests the experience of Muslims in the United States should be used as an argument in Europe that "there is no causal connection between the Muslim faith and social problems."
Still, while U.S. Muslims may be more integrated than those in Europe, Pew polling shows most U.S. Muslims feel alienated and singled out in the war on terror, though that perception hasn’t increased in the last decade. Muslims also struggle with how much they should integrate U.S. culture and mores into their daily lives. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, Muslim Americans are the least likely of any religious group to be registered to vote, for example.
Bagby says that following 9/11, mosques began doing more community outreach and interfaith work, where in many cases previously there had been little or none. He adds that, even before 9/11, arguments within mosques advocating living apart from secular American society had been already lost. Brookings’ Skerry agrees, but only somewhat. He contends that, while "Muslim leaders have seriously endeavored to get ordinary Muslims to engage with American society" in the last decade, leaders are "still caught up in habits that undermine their stated goals" (such as holding major meetings on Christmas) and many Muslims still struggle with issues such as whether to befriend non-Muslims.
"A Muslim population that feels at home in and with the West will not produce people who wish to undermine it," writes CFR’s Ed Husain. "Muslim leaders in Britain and America are still struggling to articulate confidently a form of Islam that is in harmony with the modern world."
Attacks and attempted attacks by homegrown Islamist extremists, the debate over a new Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero, and the 2010 midterm elections led to acrimonious debate about Muslims in the United States. About 40 percent of Americans polled believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, according to a 2010 Pew report, and about half of respondents of a 2011 Public Religion Institute poll said Islam was at odds with American values. Three-quarters of respondents to an August 2011 Gallup poll say U.S. Muslims do not speak up frequently enough against terrorism.
"A significant number of Americans of diverse faiths report distrust of and prejudice toward U.S. Muslims, more so than toward any other major faith group studied," notes the recent Gallup report.
Boston College Professor Alan Wolfe says that the rhetoric against Islam--much of which is coming from U.S. conservatives--plays into the American Protestant view of "Islam as heretical." Wolfe also notes that in the last twenty to thirty years, conservative Protestants have become "second to none" in their defense of Israel. Wolfe suggests that Jewish Americans should play a stronger role in defending against anti-Muslim bigotry, since they also have a history of persecution.
"Vital distinctions are being blurred by people who should know better," writes Rabbi Eric Yoffie in a Washington Post op-ed. "I am referring to distinctions between the moderate majority and the extremists on the margins."
In 2010, a number of conservative politicians and policy analysts began calling for a ban of sharia law in U.S. courts, arguing that there is an Islamist agenda by prominent groups, such as the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to undermine the security and Constitution of the United States through its implementation. "[W]e must no longer allow those who mean to destroy our society by sabotaging it from within to camouflage themselves as ’moderates,’" says a 2010 "Team B II" report from the Center for Security Policy, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
Sharia is essentially Islamic law, governing everything from religious practice and personal conduct to civil and criminal code. It is open to wide interpretation and varies globally based on culture. U.S. detractors of sharia often point to the most conservative versions such as those used in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many experts say that there is little evidence that there is widespread support from the U.S. Muslim community for sharia law, or that if hard-line Muslims tried to implement it, they would be successful. "To put this in perspective, the extreme Christian right in America has been trying for decades to inscribe its view of America as a ’Christian nation’ into our laws," says a Center for American Progress issue brief. "They have repeatedly failed in a country in which more than three-quarters of people identify as Christians."
In March 2011, Republican Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a controversial hearing on whether Muslim communities were being uncooperative with law enforcement at the behest of leaders and groups such as CAIR. However, the August 2011 Gallup report suggests a large majority of Muslims do not acknowledge prominent groups, like CAIR, as their representatives and a 2011 Pew report shows that U.S. Muslims feel their leaders have not done enough to speak out against extremists.
"In the name of Muslim unity, many Muslim-American leaders and organizations have been less than coherent when it comes to violent extremism," writes Brookings’ Skerry. "They have confused their members as to what true religious toleration and pluralism require, and consequently feed the very suspicions of those inclined to doubt the possibility of Muslims fully assimilating to the American way of life."
Other experts and commentators say Islamophobia in the United States resembles bigoted stances of the past. In an August 2011 New York Times op-ed, Yale professor Eliyahu Stern likened current rhetoric to nineteenth century European anti-Semitism. In a June 2011 CFR meeting on Islam in America, Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core says that "the way that sharia is talked about right now in American political and public discourse is almost identical to the way that the Catholic hierarchy was talked about fifty years ago." Patel says Muslims have "a special opportunity, just as Catholics have done, just as Jews have done, just as African-Americans have done, to speak of freedom not just for our own people, but for all people, because that’s what this country is about."
U.S. Muslims and U.S. Policy
Reports in September 2011 showed that some FBI counterterrorism briefings for agents conflated terrorism with mainstream Islam (Wired), which other law enforcement experts said could not only harm anti-terrorist efforts but add to tensions with the Muslim community.
CFR’s Ed Husain says that U.S. Muslims are best positioned to defeat terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. "There’s a strong national identity in place already among most American Muslims," Husain said at a CFR meeting on Muslim community engagement. "Those are key, deep-rooted principles and assets that you have against the fight and the narrative of al-Qaeda." He also contends that the U.S. government should repair relations with Muslim communities, focusing on deradicalization programs such as counseling rather than using community tip-offs to law enforcement for "entrapment and conviction."
Skerry says that mainstream American institutions should no longer "routinely and uncritically engage with Muslim leaders and organizations" that have not answered questions about the "compatibility of their views with American values and political principles." He also says non-Muslims should become better informed about Islam and "overcome populist paranoia." The August Gallup report suggests efforts to improve relations with American Muslims should include more grants for education on Islam and Muslim societies.