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New Survey Undercuts Myth of Huge U.S. Muslim Population

October 24, 2001
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In the run-up to the 2000 presidential elections, Jewish leaders fretted about the perceived surge in influence of American Muslims — both politically and numerically — and how it might affect U.S. support for Israel.

Now Jewish leaders have statistics contradicting earlier claims that said Muslims make up more than 2 percent of the American population.

The American Jewish Committee this week released a new survey, commissioned soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, that its author describes as “the most credible estimate” to date of the size of America’s Muslim community.

While the media routinely cites a population of 6 million to 7 million U.S. Muslims — in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, estimates have been as high as 10 million — University of Chicago researcher Tom Smith says the real number is anywhere from 1.9 million to 2.8 million.

“The Muslim community is an important part of the American mosaic, but they are not as large a part as the figures cited in the media and by others would lead some to believe,” said Smith, who directs the General Social Survey at the university’s National Opinion Research Center.

“It’s quite common that groups overestimate the size of their community since they are very involved with the community, and tend to see themselves as larger than an objective standard can verify,” he said.

An American Muslim leader immediately denounced the survey as inaccurate and the AJCommittee as politically motivated.

The report is a “desperate attempt to discount the role of American Muslims,” Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Associated Press.

“Very often the representatives of the extremist wing of the pro-Israel lobby, such as the American Jewish Committee, seek to block Muslim political participation,” Hooper reportedly said.

The AJCommittee denied the charge. Spokesman Kenneth Bandler said his organization instead is “working to advance Muslim-Jewish relations.”

“We’re not seeking to diminish their influence in this country, but it’s important to know accurately what their population is,” Bandler said. “We’re anxious to develop ties with Muslim groups with whom we can seriously have a relationship, meaning groups that don’t endorse terrorism.”

The AJCommittee also was eager to give guidance to media that it believes unwittingly publish dramatically inflated population figures.

When the report was completed late last week, the AJCommittee passed it along to both The New York Times and The Associated Press.

The 6-7 million figure appears as “an established fact, even in the pages of The New York Times,” Bandler said. “We wanted to set the record straight on these numbers, and that’s it. People in the newsrooms, in political offices and the general reader can draw their own conclusions.”

Smith, for his part, said he is not concerned about rising Muslim political influence.

“I’m only interested in scientifically bad numbers,” said Smith, who is not Jewish. “If one is given wrong information, one will be guided inappropriately.”

For the past decade, Smith said, he has read publications that printed Muslim population estimates that didn’t jibe with his research.

He said he wrote to the editors of USA Today and American Demographer, a trade journal, contesting their population estimates, but neither letter was published.

The U.S. census tabulates national origin and language use, but not religious affiliation. Without it, a range of faulty methods have been used to calculate the Muslim population, Smith said.

For example, one researcher figured that an immigrant group from a given country would accurately mirror the ethnic and religious composition of the home country, discounting persecution as a motivation for emigration, Smith said.

Smith poked holes in that method with two examples: Lebanon is a Muslim-majority state, but most Lebanese emigres over the years have been Christians. And immigrants from Russia a century ago overwhelmingly were Jewish — though the vast majority of Russians belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In other cases, Smith said researchers have overestimated several numbers:

Muslims with limited English who would have been deterred from participating in surveys;

Muslims reluctant to identify their religion;

Muslim African-Americans;

Islamic sects not immediately recognizable as Muslim;

Islamic centers, schools and mosques;

Muslims affiliated per mosque; and

Muslims not affiliated with mosques.

In contrast, Smith states in his report that he took several population surveys and found that 0.2 to 0.6 percent of households had at least one Muslim adult.

He then considered estimates of Muslim immigrants with limited English skills — who would be less likely to participate in surveys — since figures indicate that a sizeable majority of Muslims in America are foreign-born.

Taking this into account, Smith estimated that Muslims make up 0.7 percent of the adult population. Extrapolating that out to the general population produced a range of 1.9 million to 2.8 million.

As the quote variously attributed to British politician Benjamin Disraeli and novelist Mark Twain goes, there are “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

When reading population studies, Smith says it always critical to consider the source.

“When there aren’t scientifically credible numbers, someone supplies those numbers and they usually represent an advocacy group,” he said. “Many counts are not actually counts. It’s based on someone saying, ‘Oh, there’s that many.’ And those numbers could be wildly inaccurate.”

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