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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

Senior Editor:
Arthur Scott

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Pew surveys and the politics of demography

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the second report of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey on June 23, 2008 which again uses its 2007 flawed report about the population of Muslims in America.

This new PEW analysis examining the diversity of Americans’ religious beliefs and practices as well as their social and political attitudes finds that 92% of those interviewed believed in the existence of God or a universal spirit and 58% prayed privately every day.

Although many Americans are highly religious, they are not dogmatic in their faith, the survey said adding that 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Most also think there is more than one correct way to interpret the teachings of their own faith. 

According to the PEW survey, 78.4 percent Americans are Christians, 4.7 percent (including 1.7% Jews) belong to other faiths and 16.1 % do not belong to any faith while 0.8% declined to answer affiliation.

However, to the disappointment of seven-million strong American Muslim community, the new PEW survey also insists on its arbitrary figures about the Muslim population. It says that Muslims account for roughly 0.6% of the U.S. population. Its May 2007 survey claimed that the population of the American Muslim community is no more than 2.35 million which is closer to the estimates announced by the American Jewish Committee in October 2001.

These figures were repeated in its February 2008 and now in the latest PEW survey.

Tellingly, the AJC study – titled Estimating the Muslim Population in the United States - claimed that the best estimate of Muslims in the United States is 2.8 million at most, compared to the 6 or 7 million figure used by many researchers and Muslim organizations.

Interestingly, for the Muslim population, the PEW relied on its 2007 controversial report but for other faiths it has taken other sources into consideration. For the American Muslims, the PEW survey, just like the AJC report, is no more than an attempt to undercut the influence of American Muslims. It looks a desperate venture to discount the role of American Muslims.

The PEW’s demographic figures of American Muslims already made an entry into the Wikipedia encyclopedia’s article on American Muslim population estimates. Since then the Pew numbers are quoted frequently as an authoritative estimate of American Muslims.

Religious denominations, like all interest groups, can gain or lose political clout based on perceptions of their size, according to J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. In the case of the U.S. Muslim community, Melton says, its efforts to influence policy in the Middle East would get a boost if it were viewed as being larger than the country's Jewish population, which is estimated at 6 million. (The latest PEW survey puts Jewish population at 1.7%.) "It's a political question: How does it sway votes?" he argued.

The American Jewish Committee's executive director David Harris has warned that the increasingly visible American Muslim lobby posed a challenge to U.S.-Israel relations. In an article published by the Jerusalem Report in May 2001, Harris urged American Jewry to unite with Israel to battle against the growing Arab and Muslim lobbies here and the challenge they present to long-standing U.S. support for Israel. Harris cited the "myth" of high Muslim population figures as one tactic Muslims are using to advance their position.

The American Jewish Committee and other groups estimate the number of Jews in this country is about 6 million. "Six million has a special resonance," Harris wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine. "It would mean that Muslims outnumber Jews in the U.S. and it would buttress calls for a redefinition of America's heritage as 'Judeo-Christian-Muslim.”

The American Jewish Committee survey of Muslim population was conducted by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago who questioned the study, "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," released in April 2001 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The CAIR study reported that the number of mosques rose by about 25 percent, to more than 1,200, from 1994 to 2000. Based on reports of attendance at some mosques, researchers estimated the number of American Muslims at 6 million to 7 million. The project surveyed individual mosques, finding that 340 adults and children participated at the average mosque and that another 1,629 were "associated in any way" with the average mosque's activities, yielding a figure of 2 million Muslims. The authors then adjusted the estimate to 6 million to 7 million overall to take into account family members and unaffiliated Muslims.

Based in part on that report, most media organizations, as well as the White House and the State Department, have said that there are at least 6 million Muslims in the country.

With the Muslim community in America growing steadily, a coalition of American Muslim groups recently launched a nationwide project to collect comprehensive data about the Muslim community in America, specifically relating to size, infrastructure development, the participation of women and youth, and depth of involvement in American society. Its finding were expected to be published in early 2009.

Dr. Zahid Bukhari, Project Director the American Muslims Studies Program at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, argues that in the absence of any census data on religious affiliation, the estimate of religious communities’ population is always a problematic venture.

“One can find various estimates of the evangelical Christian, Catholic and Jewish population that are available in the survey literature. What are the numbers of evangelical Christians in the population? A recent Baylor University study put the percentage at 33.6 percent, roughly 100 million people. At the same time, a study by the Bliss Institute of University of Akron put the percentage at 26.3 percent, roughly 79 million people – a difference of almost 21 million followers. The same is the case with the Catholic population. The range of the estimates is between 22 percent and 26 percent, a difference of about 12 million people. The Latino population has surpassed the African-American population in the United States. How many of them are Catholics or Evangelical is again a matter of speculation and religious aspirations. The controversy about the extent of declining Jewish population in the USA has not been settled yet.”

Dr. Bukhari suggests that instead of criticizing scholars and studies in the pages of Jerusalem Post for their “brazen manipulation” and “exaggeration” by quoting different estimates of the Muslim population in America, the American Jewish Committee, along with other national religious groups, should support a call to the Bureau of Census to include a question on religious affiliation in the coming census of 2010. The census question will at least present a real picture of the religious landscape of the United States. The religion question is being asked in Canada, England, Australia and other industrial countries who also maintain the separation of church and state.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the  Editor -in-Chief of the Journal of America.