Jewish leaders thought it had been debunked years ago, but in President Obama’s Cairo speech last week, there it was again – the claim that 7 million Muslims live in the United States.
Where did it come from?
A White House spokesman told JTA that the “White House relied on public accounts and statements by officials from the prior Administration that place the number of American Muslims at around 7 million.”
For instance, Karen Hughes, then undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, used the figure twice, first with college students in Saudi Arabia in 2005 and the next year at a U.S.-Arab Economic Forum. The 7 million figure has also been cited frequently in recent years by major media organizations, including Newsweek and ABC.
The problem is that there appears to be hardly any basis in fact for the 7 million figure.
“We were surprised that the president used an inflated figure for the U.S. Muslim population when several academic studies, including one commissioned by AJC, have shown the numbers to be much lower,” said American Jewish Committee spokesman Kenneth Bandler.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman was also puzzled by the White House explanation. "That’s good," he said, but "not good enough. I don’t believe that they would use Karen Hughes as a reliable source on any other subject, so why use her on this?”
While widely reported in the media and often disseminated by Muslim advocacy organizations, an American Jewish Committee report in 2001 found the 7 million figure to be grossly overestimated, while a more recent and extensive independent survey found the number of Muslims in the U.S. to be at about a third of 7 million.
The best and most recent estimate comes from a 2007 Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 1,050 Muslims. Using that data along with information from the census bureau, the group estimated that the total population of Muslims in the United States was 2.35 million.
That came six years after the American Jewish Committee commissioned a report by survey research expert Tom Smith of the University of Chicago, which used a variety of surveys from 1998-2001 to estimate that the Muslim population was close to 1.9 million
The 7 million figure according to Smith, seems to come from a survey of mosques released in 2001 sponsored by the Council for American-Islamic Relations. That study found that 1,629 Muslims were associated with each mosque surveyed, which led to a total of close to 2 million Muslims who had membership in a mosque. But the survey, said Smith, didn’t adjust those figures to account for varying sizes of mosques — and even the researchers who did the survey admitted smaller mosques were likely undercounted. That number was also more than twice as high as the findings from another survey of mosques seven years earlier.
The researchers then claimed that there were another 2 to 2.5 Muslims who aren’t affiliated with a mosque for every mosque-goer to get an estimate of 6 to 7 million, an assertion Smith called “untenable.”
Most recent surveys of the U.S. Jewish population placed it between 5 and 6 million people. A different 2008 Pew survey found that 1.7 percent of the U.S. adult population of approximately 230 million – which comes to around 3.9 million — was Jewish, almost three times as large as the .6 percent of American adults – or 1.38 million — that were found to be Muslim.