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Muslim Americans: A National Portrait (Gallup & the Muslim West Facts Project)

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Written by Abdul-Malik Ryan (Abu Noor)

Gallup and the Muslim West Facts Project released at the beginning of last week a major new study of the American Muslim community. The study examines a variety of elements of the Muslim population of the United States: its racial composition, its educational and income levels, as well as more subjective criteria such as the extent to which the participants in the survey value religion, their level of contentment and their integration into the broader community.

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The main findings of this new study are not that surprising: Muslims in the U.S. have long touted the fact that the community is racially diverse and highly educated relative to other religious communities in the country. What may be surprising about the results to some, especially in terms of general perceptions of Muslims are some of the findings with regard to gender. According to this survey, Muslim women in the U.S. have the same levels of education and income as Muslim men. Also, Muslim women report that they attend mosque services as often as do Muslim men, which is not true for Muslim women in many majority Muslim countries.

Of course, studies such as this are deeply important beyond any specific findings. It is vital to start building a foundation of research that can provide basically reliable information about the Muslim community and frame questions for further research. All of us realize that the Muslim community in the United States is in an important stage of development and the community is making decisions in terms of where to direct resources and how to see and project itself which will be influential long into the future. Unfortunately, most of these decisions have been made up to this point without any reliable data on the community and therefore have relied on people’s personal perceptions and inherent biases, both of which may be deeply flawed. In that vein, it is interesting to note some of the possible limitations of this study. The study is designed to compare different religious communities in the United States. However, for many issues such as educational attainment and income level, it seems primarily to reflect racial disparities in the United States. Also, the Black/White/Asian/Hispanic/Other racial categorization used in the survey are an uncomfortable fit for the Muslim community.

Among other reasons, this is true because one of the major components of the US Muslim population, the Arabs, may either identify themselves as “White” or “Other,” but I think the idea that Arabs in post 9/11 America are basically identified by the larger community as “White” would be misleading. Another interesting possible limitation of this survey to note is that the survey was only conducted in English and Spanish. The Pew Research survey that was done last year included interviews in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi in addition to English. According to Pew, two thirds of American Muslims are foreign born and up to 17 percent may not speak English well enough to complete a survey in that language. To the extent that this recent Gallup survey excludes those Muslims who cannot speak English or Spanish, it would tend to increase the findings of the survey regarding percentage of Muslims who are Black, percentage who are well educated and with high incomes, and percentage who are young. (I’m assuming that Muslims who do not speak English would be disproportionately older and less well educated). It is also possible that leaving out such populations might affect some of the survey’s findings around gender issues. Anecdotally, most of us are familiar with populations of more recent immigrant Muslims where women are less likely to work or attend the masjid. However, such women are also less likely to speak English well.

This survey does not attempt to venture into the contentious issue of the total Muslim population in the United States. It does give a high finding for the percentage of Muslims who are Black, at 35 percent. All other major religious groups in the US included in the survey (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon) are made up predominantly of people who identify as “White” according to the survey. For Muslim Americans as a whole, 80 percent said that religion is an important of their daily life. This was higher than all other religious groups in the survey except Mormons (85%). The figure for the general U.S. population is 65 percent.

However, that number is still lower than the numbers for many Muslim majority countries, where results for that question are in the high 90s. I also found it interesting that only 49 percent of American Muslims who say that religion plays an important role in their daily life reported attending a mosque on at least a weekly basis. One might be tended to think this reflects Muslim women who are not required to attend the masjid for congregational prayer, but elsewhere in the survey it is reported that 42 percent of men and 40 percent of women said they attend the mosque on at least a weekly basis. This means that, according to this survey, there a high percentage (actually a majority) of Muslim men and women who state that religion plays an important part in their daily life but who still attend mosques on less than a weekly basis.

The socioeconomic findings of the survey, as I mentioned above tended to reflect general racial disparities in American society. While the survey reported Muslim Americans to closely resemble each other in terms of the importance of religion in their lives, they more closely resembled other non-Muslim members of similar racial groups in their socioeconomic status. Due to the high percentage of Asian American and African Americans among the Muslims, the Muslim community tended to have segments of the community which were wealthier and segments of the community which were poorer than the U.S. population generally. This included an important finding that 27 percent of Muslims in the United States reported experiencing a time in the last 12 months when they did not have enough money for food that they needed. 16 percent reported that there was a time in the last 12 months when they did not have enough money for shelter that they needed. These figures of need for basic necessities of life was higher for Muslims in the United States than for any other religious group in the survey. (The figures for the general U.S. population were 18 percent with regard to food and 9 percent with regard to shelter).

The report also discusses political issues. The Muslim community is less likely to be registered to vote than other communities. They are more likely to consider themselves Independents or Democrats than Republicans, and were overwhelmingly supporters of Barack Obama in the last election. The survey included questions about political ideology, but I think terms such as liberal, moderate, conservative are both vague and ambiguous especially when one is talking to people of religious faith. (I mean I may be politically radical and theologically conservative in some people’s eyes but I don’t really like any of those terms and therefore I am hesitant to make too much out of people’s responses to such questions without any context.)

In a second post, I intend to address some of the findings of the survey regarding Muslim Youth which are potentially important, as well as one other interesting aspect of the report. The entire 140 page report is available for dowload here.

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Abdul-Malik was born Michael P. Ryan in Chicago, Illinois. His study of African-American history in high school and at DePaul University and his encounter with the life and legacy of Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) led to his accepting Islam in 1994. He was one of the founding members and is a past President of the Board of Directors of the Inner City Muslim Action Network, IMAN. He is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and he has been working as an attorney for children in the foster care system in Chicago for the past ten years. In addition to almost anything regarding Islam, his major interests include Irish History, Comparative Religion (especially Judaism), and Historical Mystery Fiction. He will rarely be found without several books that he is currently reading. He also blogs and comments under his kunya and nisba Abu Noor Al-Irlandee.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. ALGEBRA

    March 14, 2009 at 12:31 AM

    Aslamu-alaikum:
    I love this study. It just tells you how Islam is inclusive of all races. All the other religions have a predominance of Whites; whereas, MashAllah, in Islam one has a balanced proportion of whites, african americans, asians, etc.

    Speaking of gender, male and females. Islam again has a balanced numbers to these in relations to income.

    Balanced again.

    that is the beauty of Islam. REALLY, in Islam it doesn’t really matter if one is black, white, asian, hispanic, they are treated according to their actions and taqwa and sincerety and that reflects in the numbers.

    I have been to several churches when i was young and i saw that there was a church for the whites and there was a church for the blacks and even in church they would come to church together on Sunday but there was this strong prejudice against each other. IT IS TRUE WHETHER ONE WANTS TO ADMIT TO IT OR NOT. EVEN TODAY IN THE DEEP SOUTH.
    Even though Muslims are not perfect there is little of that. That is because in the beginning of Islam, we had people like Bilal(ra) an african american revered for athan. The PROPHET(pbuh) did not choose one over the other according to race………….. and since childhood we are taught that philosophy.
    anyway just my two cents worth.
    salam

  2. Midwest Musa

    March 14, 2009 at 1:38 AM

    The latter points in this article reflect the potential problems of surveys as a methodology. They can more easily conceal bias under claims of objectivity. In this case, categories like “religion”, or dare I say “Muslim”, seem so vague that they would have little meaning across the spectrum of respondents. I am also a disturbed by the way that this study has been spun to promote a “we’re just like you” message rather than dealing with any of the real issues. It is true that the larger community would not identify Arabs as white. Though it’s just as interesting that so many Arabs would self-identify as white. Or perhaps this issue just highlights the flaws of the US census categories.

    Here are some suggested questions to pour a little shatta on the bland data:

    What percentages of Arab women who self-identify as white use the Fair and Lovely and B*White creams sold widely across the Middle East?
    What percentage of American Muslim charitable donations goes to to 15-25% of American Muslims with desperate needs?
    Among the 80% of Muslims who consider religion an important part of their daily life, what percentage regularly performs at least three of the daily prayers? (this would actually give “religion” a semi-concrete meaning from the Muslim perspective)
    How do the rates of women in the workforce vary between monogamous and polygamous families in the Muslim community?
    What percentage of Muslim males have prayed alone in a public place during the last 12 months? How many of them did so in the plain sight of other “white” people?

  3. ALGEBRA

    March 14, 2009 at 1:58 AM

    Aslamu-alaikum:

    “How do the rates of women in the workforce vary between monogamous and polygamous families in the Muslim community?”

    :) :)
    Ha ha ha………………
    salam

  4. anon

    March 14, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    Its funny, its good the Muslim community is so diverse, I guess. But it explains why we are so un-unified and dysfunctional. There are way to many factions (racial, ethic, economic class, immigrant vs native born, sectarian) I really don’t see how we will ever have a solid influential block. Has there ever been a success Muslim community that is so diverse, maybe the Ottomans? I would love to hear about historically Muslims deal with our huge diversity.

  5. anon

    March 14, 2009 at 9:23 AM

    ps, those demographic numbers are so wrong. Who is claiming White, is must be more than just Arabs. Lol, so funny, delusional.

  6. Pingback: The Summer of Islamophobia and the November Election - MuslimMatters.org

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