Are there Seven Million American Muslims?

In his “New Beginnings” speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama put the Muslim population of the United States at seven million. Although the President probably cited this figure to impress upon his Arab-Muslim audience the significant presence of Muslims in American life, this high estimate has political reverberations. It has been used to argue that American policy makers should accord greater weight to the opinions of American Muslims on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The problem is, the figure is wrong.

An analysis of population data and membership claims among various Middle Eastern groups in America indicates that the figure President Obama cited is exaggerated by a factor of two or more. While the media frequently repeats this erroneous figure, when the President of the United States’ cites this statistic, it raises concern over whom he relies upon for factual information that has ramifications on Middle Eastern policy.

The seven million figure most likely comes from a study commissioned in 2001 by CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and several other Muslim organizations. It was carried out by Islamic studies professor Ihsan Bagby, a member of the CAIR board. Extrapolating from limited sampling, Bagby estimated there were two million mosque-goers in America and then guessed that the actual Muslim population was about three times that number. The study has been criticized as unscientific and unreliable.

The American Jewish Committee commissioned another study by professor Tom Smith  of the University of Chicago, who calculated between 1.9 million and 2.8 million Muslims. While some might question a study commissioned by a Jewish organization, Smith’s figures were corroborated by other studies conducted by disinterested parties. Most recently, a Pew study in June 2007 determined that there were 2.35 million American Muslims. Most statistically valid studies have provided estimates in the range of 1.5 to 3.4 million.
Interestingly most American Muslims are not from the Arab world. The official 2000 US census tabulated the ancestries of Americans. The two nation that have provided the largest number of Muslim immigrants to America are Iran, 338,266 and Pakistan, 253,193. Third place would probably go to India, whose 1,546,703 tally includes a portion (roughly estimated at 15 percent) who are Muslim.
According to the Pew study, 35 percent of American Muslims are native black Muslims. Muslims from predominately Arab countries represent only about a quarter of  American Muslims.

The population figure raises other questions associated with how domestic considerations bear upon American policy in the Middle East. Since President Obama chose to address the Muslim world in the Middle East, it is also worth scrutinizing the identities of Americans whose origins are from the region. According to the census, the cumulative number of Americans who trace some part of their ancestry to Arab states is 1.2 million. But the vast majority of these people are descendants of Christian minorities, not Muslims.


Arab ancestry

Arab ancestry alone or in combination with another

















30,352< /P>





Arab – non specified



Arab – other countries*



* This includes 10,750 who put down “non-Arab” and 28,400 who identified themselves as “Middle Eastern.”

The vast majority of immigrants from the three Arab states that have the most descendants in America are Christians.
• Most immigrants from Syria were members of Assyrian, Chaldean or Greek Orthodox churches.
• A large portion, probably the majority, of Americans of Egyptian descent are Coptic Christians.
• The largest group of  immigrants have come from Lebanon. While in recent years many have been Muslim, overall, the overwhelming majority have been Christian.

Although , it is difficult to correlate census figures with estimates provided by individual religious and ethnic organizations, the figures nevertheless indicate a consistent pattern among Americans whose origins are in Middle Eastern countries.

The National Council of Churches estimates 180,000 Copts in America. Assyrian and Chaldean Christians claim as many as 300,000 adherents. Many from these groups distinguish themselves as distinct from the Arab Muslims. Several years ago, prominent Assyrian and Chaldean groups convinced the Arab-American Institute to stop counting them as Arabs. An addendum to the U.S. census report notes that most Iraqis Americans are Christians who do not regard themselves as Arab. The report identifies between 65-125,000 living in Detroit, 35,000 in San Diego and a large population in Chicago.

The largest distinct population of Middle Eastern ancestry living in the United States is Lebanese-American. They are overwhelmingly Christian. Maronite Catholics originally represented the largest denomination, although most now simply identify as Roman Catholic. A large proportion do not consider themselves as Arabs and do not identify with Muslim causes. At times, some have vociferously distanced themselves from Arab-Muslim politics. The following are excerpts from a letter sent by several major Maronite and Assyrian organizations demanding that the Arab-American Institute stop including them in their figures for Arab-Americans:

We the undersigned, speaking on behalf of over 2.2 million Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, and Maronites living in America herewith assert that Assyrians and Maronites are not and have never been Arabs — contrary to the claims of the Arab American Institute.

1. Assyrians and Maronites are ethnically distinct from Arabs or any other ethnic group.

2. Assyrians are linguistically distinct from Arabs or any other linguistic group.

3. Assyrians and Maronites are Christians and belong to various denominations: Syriac Orthodox Church, Syrian Catholic Church, Chaldean Church of Babylon, Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Maronite Church, Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations.

4. Assyrians are the indigenous people of north Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria, and northwest Iran. Maronites are the indigenous people of Lebanon.

5. Assyrians and their civilizations, and the Phoenicians of Lebanon, span seven thousand years and predate the Arab conquest of the region.

The letter was signed by numerous leaders of  Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite organizations.
The Arab American Institute website now carries a disclaimer on its page detailing the American Arab population.
The non-Arab and Christian composition of a large portion of Americans of Middle Eastern heritage is important to recognize so that they are not all inadvertently lumped together as Muslim or Arab. Americans of Middle Eastern descent are not monolithic in their identity or political views. An accurate accounting of the size and composition of these communities helps put in perspective their relative political weight when it comes to domestic political considerations influencing the Israeli-Arab conflict.
While it is important to recognize that there is a vibrant Muslim community in America it is also important not to exaggerate its size.  The media should be more vigilant in its role of  fact checking, even if it means occasionally correcting the President. 

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