How Muslim are we?

muslim_2000_finalA couple of days ago, President Barack Obama conducted a few interviews in anticipation of his upcoming speech to Muslims. In one of the interviews, he made a statement about the religious make-up of the United States of America. Here’s how the New York Times wrote it up:

In an interview with Laura Haim on Canal Plus, a French television station, Mr. Obama noted that the United States also could be considered as “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He sought to downplay the expectations of the speech, but he said he hoped the address would raise awareness about Muslims.

Here’s the relevant quote:

The president said the United States and other parts of the Western world “have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam.”

“And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world,” Mr. Obama said. “And so there’s got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.”

There are all sorts of interesting things about his statement, none of which seem to be explored by the mainstream media. One thing I find curious is how during a recent trip abroad, President Obama emphasized that we’re not a Christian country.

major_religious_traditionsBut perhaps the most important thing that journalists should be noting about this statement is, well, that it’s just not true. I’m not referring to the fact that no matter how many particular religious adherents live within our borders, it doesn’t change the secular make-up of our government. I simply mean that if you actually take the number of Muslim Americans, the United States would not be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. The New York Times simply quotes Obama and doesn’t mention anything about the statement’s inaccuracy!

Let’s go to the numbers. You can see the results from the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey to the right. Muslims account for 0.6% of the U.S. population. While some groups say there are millions more, Pew’s results would mean there are fewer than 2 million Muslims in the country.

Wikipedia has a list of 38 countries with a majority Muslim population. Obviously we’re not on that list. And if you go by sheer numbers, we’re not one of the largest by that measure either. Or, as Noah Pollak writes over at Commentary:

Obama is right — we’re one of the largest, only outranked by Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Russia, Yemen, China, Syria, Malaysia, Tanzania, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Tunisia, Somalia, Guinea, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Libya, Jordan, Chad, Turkemenistan, Philippines, France, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Thailand, Mauritania, Germany, Oman, Albania, Malawi, Kenya, Eritrea, Serbia and Montenegro, Lebanon, Kuwait, the UAE, and . . . well, at some point here you get to the United States, which has (estimates vary) around 1-3 million Muslims.

Has anyone seen any mainstream media outlet crunch the numbers — much less discuss how such a statement was made? Other than the Washington Times, I haven’t seen anything. For his piece, reporter Joseph Weber speaks with various Middle East policy wonks about the statement’s accuracy — they all agree it’s not — and what it means for foreign relations. It might also be nice for some religion reporters to look at the issue as well.

As one reader wrote to us, how does Obama make such an outrageous comment and not get called on it? I know the mainstream media is busy covering other important Obama angles, but this is seriously getting out of hand.

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  • http://www.blackwasp19.wordpress.com Blackwasp19

    I agree with President Obama when he says we are not a Christian nation, but not with his subsequent statements about Islam.

    Yea, I was set aback where I heard this statement. I wonder if he actually connected middle-eastern/Arab and Muslim? It is the common perception that the Arabs in the USA are Muslim are Islamic, but in reality most are Christians.

    Also, this comment is interesting, because it seems another example of American needing to be something. We need to have a large population because we are American. In stead of just being who we are we inflate our existence. This folly, which Obama fell prey to, seems to be integrated in our American arrogance.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    NPR was having some trouble with the Muslim/Arab distinction this morning, too. The reporter slipped a couple of times, and I thought that I heard them refer to “Arab”-Israeli relationships in connection with Iran (which is majority Persian, not Arab), but I could be wrong. They might have been talking solely about Palestinians, in which case “Arab” would have been correct (though not very precise).

  • http://faithphotos.aminus3.com Chris

    In his speech today in Cairo, Pres. Obama mentioned that we have “nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today”. This number is clearly very different from the Pew results (which even if off by 2 million are still well below the President’s estimate) – any chance the MSM will report this issue?

  • Jim Hart

    All Things Considered called him on that statement yesterday, so it’s not been completely overlooked.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    I heard that too, Jim.

    The statement may indeed be in error, but what makes it “outrageous”? Clearly the Islamic population in the United States is of a significant size.

    Given the difference in numbers, I suspect the higher number includes members of homegrown Islamic groups, such as Nation of Islam and its offshoots, while the lower number probably does not.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think what makes it outrageous is that it is nowhere near true, either by percentage of the population or sheer numbers.

  • Jerry

    Mollie,

    I think you’re making a mistake by just siting one survey. I found http://www.religioustolerance.org/isl_numb.htm which shows numbers all over the map and basically says “no one knows”. President Obama’s numbers could well be off but a good reporter would have done the research I just did and mentioned the wide variance in the count in her or his story. I also checked with the “Oracle”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_United_States which also has that same wide range but cites different surveys.

    So your outrage is mis-focused. The problem is, as usual, lack of research on the part of the media including reporters, commentators and bloggers is the problem.

    I also sense a bit of NIGYSOB (Eric Berne “Games People Play”) going on: “Now I’ve Got You, You SOB” on the part of quite a few on the right wing. I say this because there’s a big difference between saying that the President used numbers which are controversial versus pouncing on the words as a cat pounces on mice. Of course, the left did the same thing with the previous President so it’s an old game everyone can play. But it would be nice if more people could take a step back from the “game” to see how it operates no matter who is in office.

  • Julia

    One media coverage (and general knowledge) problem is how to describe people who may speak Arabic but may not be ethnically Arabic. This is particularly a problem in the Levant which was part of the Christian Byzantine Empire at the time of the Conquest. Many, many of those people’s ancestors were indigenous – Jewish and Christian folks living there before the Muslim conquest. That being the case, why does the media lump the Christians in with the ethnic Arabs? Because they now speak Arabic? [The only real exception to Middle East Christians being labelled Arab are the Armenians, who I presume are not Semitic]

    Most folks at the time of the Conquest (other than the Bedouins in the fringe desert areas) in the Palestinian area and Gaza were converted Jews or Jews, right? And who were the people in Antioch and Tarsus who became and stayed Christian long before the Muslims arrived? Today they speak Arabic, but many still use Aramaic and other languages for their Christian religious rites.

    Do the Arabs claim that today’s local Christians were indigenous Arabs who were converted by the Crusaders? If you read the most up-to-date histories of the Crusades, the Western Crusaders maarried local women who were already Christians and allowed the Christian families to keep their lands – these in-place Christians have to be the ancestors of most of today’s Christians.

    The Christians in Iraq were probably Assyrians and Chaldeans, not Arabs. The Christians in Lebanon had been coastal traders and fled to the hills during the Conquest – were they Assyrians, too or Syrians? Not so many Christians in Iran, but those that do exist are probably Persian or Armenian and not Arab. And were the indigenous Christian in Damascus Arabic, I don’t think so. A fair number were even ex-pats from Constantinople – the so-called Nestorians?

    Jews are Semitic, so is it even possible to sort out the DNA of indigenous Christians from the conquering Semitic Arabs? Were the Syrians and Assyrians, etc. also Semitic?
    Do Christian or Jewish Semitic peoples become Arabic upon conversion to Islam?

    Anybody have any information/sources on the indigenous pre-Conquest Christians in the Levant and their ethnicity?

    Or what the MSM rules are on referring to Christian ethnicities in the Middle East? Or do the rulebooks not even make a distinction if they speak Arabic today?

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    If you look at the Wikipedia number sources, the survey results consistently produce low numbers. The three high numbers either have no provenance (Newsweek, EB) or are self-reported estimates. I don’t see any reason to accept the higher numbers. Of course, for the purpose of the speech the inclination would be to take the largest value one could find.

  • Matt

    Jerry,

    Do you think NIGYSOB was a factor in the mainstream media’s treatment of Sarah Palin? Every hem and haw in her interview with Katie Couric was treated as evidence of her lack of intelligence and education. Her statement about Alaska being near Russia (factually true) was mocked without pity. Late-night comedy and Tina Fey picked up on these cues instantly and the “Palin is an idiot” meme worked through the culture at lightning speed.

    And yet, you expect the media and those of us on the Right to be charitable with Obama when he says something that is misinformed and factually untrue. Why should the media and public opinion be charitable in their interpretation of the gaffes of one side but not the other?

  • Dan LaHood

    when’s POTUS going to address the Buddhists Hindus Jains Jehovah Witnesses Shintos of the World? They must be feeling left out.

  • Jerry

    Matt, yes I agree with you and that’s why I said “Of course, the left did the same thing with the previous President”. I could have mentioned Sarah Palin. I’ve seen as much nastiness from the left as from the right including some gays on the left insulting Cheney for coming out in favor of gay marriage which is weird to my mind.

    On a different point, now that I’ve read the transcript of President Obama’s speech, I see that a real religion story is his use of religious language and phraseology from the beginning to the end including in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer. and his closing

    The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

    The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

    The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

    I don’t have time right now to look at how the media is covering that story, but I’m going to guess that most of the coverage is not very good. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/5443448/Barack-Obama-speech-the-full-transcript.html

  • Stephen

    The number of Muslims in America is irrelevant at this point and seems to be a red herring to me. The deeper question is, what Obama means by the “two peoples”. There is so much going on here that it is difficult to tell what the underlining motives are. Is Obama speaking of Christians and Muslims? America against Islam? but he also acknowledges that America is not a Christian country. I would have to agree that America is not a Christian country and never really has been but it also seems that many individuals in Muslim countries believe that America and Christianity are synonymous. There are just too many terms thrown out here such as Islam, Arab, Muslim, America, Christianity and various countries, and the terms appear to be all mixed up. If I had to guess, I would say that Obama is talking about America vs. Muslims but this is confusing because he thinks that America could be one of the largest Muslim countries base on population and again that America is not Christian. He makes it sound as if there was a holy war but to my knowledge there was and is not. I think Obama is trying to tell everyone what they want to here. Another point that I would like to add is that when we speak of Muslims, are we speaking of radical, conservative or the nominal type? There is a big difference.

  • Herb B

    Has anyone checked CAIR’s numbers for the U.S.? In general Muslims tend to inflate, or at leaat use the highest possible number for reckoning the number of Muslims in any given population group. Jerry is right, the numbers are literally all over the map.

  • Herb B

    I just checked the CAIR website and find one estimate of 6 to 8 million Muslims in the US. That is more like 2.7% of the US population, rather than the .6% of the Pew survey. I guess that is a few million more, but Obama’s statement, even by CAIR’s estimate is way overstated.

  • Ira Rifkin

    CAIR’s US Muslim population figure is a political calculation more than anything, as is everything emanating from CAIR.

    But CAIR is not alone in playing the numbers=power game. A cardinal rule of religion reporting is to not accept any self-reported membership number as truth without solid evidence to back it up.

    That’s one reason organizations such as Pew are so valuable.

    As for the media challenging Obama on this, forget it. It’s a side issue of interest mainly to religion journalists – and religion journalists (that is, those still with jobs) are not the ones, by and large, getting first crack at this story – as well as to those made nervous by the political/social consequences of a Muslim population growing ever larger.

    Obama’s on a political – dare I say it – crusade, and that’s how it will be covered and played. Political expediency is probably also the reason he choose to go with the top end estimate, as his speechwriting staff must have also known about the lower estimates. He’s looking for positive reactions (or as positive as one might hope for) to his speech from all quarters.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What bothers me is that if President Bush had totally gotten his facts wrong (as in this case) the NY Times (and all their myriad media entourage) there would have been immediate comments about his stupidity or ignorance. Yet this mistake is typical of many President Obama repeatedly makes, but he is almost never called out on them by the MSM.

  • sonar

    Albania is not in the range of 60-80% muslim as the map indicates. We are some 70% irreligious after years of atheism and have now twice more churches than mosques.

    I don’t get it why foreign journalists keep using 2 centuries old data…

  • michael

    Methinks Obama needs to get out more to those parts of the country where people still cling to guns and religion, Oklahoma perhaps, and pay a visit to his local neighborhod Mosque.

    What is curious about this little rufflement and scufflement is the idea that America’s status as a ‘Muslim nation’ is contingent upon the number of Muslims who live here, whether the number is two million, seven million or fifteen million. First of all, to be a well-adjusted American Muslim means that you’re already on your way to being a Liberal (in the sense that comprehends both right and left), which means that like most other religious Americans you’ve learned to compartmentalize and privatize your faith in the interest of being American. So while it may be out of place to talk about anything so monolithic as ‘orthodox Islam’, American Islam is likely to be suspect to in the eyes of much of the rest of the Muslim world. Second of all, to the extent that there is such a thing as a common ‘American culture’ it is beyond incredible to try to claim that it is, in any significant historical of formative sense, Muslim. Obama himself can’t really believe that, so I don’t know why he expects anyone else to.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    when’s POTUS going to address the Buddhists Hindus Jains Jehovah Witnesses Shintos of the World? They must be feeling left out.

    And the pagans! We have been told that they are the country’s “fastest growing religion”, whatever that means.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    including some gays on the left insulting Cheney for coming out in favor of gay marriage which is weird to my mind.

    No weirder than insulting Nixon for coming out for environmental protection. The response from the left, as far as I could make out, was “How dare he trespass on an issue which is OUR property,”, or something which made an equal amount of sense.

  • Darel

    It is truly frightening that Daniel Pipes seems to have one of the best blog posts on the web concerning the number of Muslims in the United States.

    In short, political organizations and witless reporters use numbers in Obama’s range. Demographers and pollsters are all in the 1-3 million range.

    The point of all this? That when the President says, as he did in Cairo, that “Islam is a part of America”, it is important to acknowledge that it is a very very very small part. From a political and cultural perspective, the Nation of Islam is a far more significant “part of America” than the religion which “was first revealed” in the Middle East. But saying that would probably have ruined the speech.

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  • John

    If we want to do a better job understanding Islam, as Obama suggests, then people in New York should head to the Natural History Museum on June 10 at 7 p.m. to see the sneak preview of “Journey to Mecca”, the world’s first IMAX film on the hajj. Go to http://www.amnh.org/programs for tix, go to http://www.journeytomeccagiantscreen.com to see the trailer. One night only. Well worth seeing!

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  • Dave

    Don’t take NIGYSOB away from GetReligion. It would have to fall silent on topics that bring in huge numbers of comments.

  • MichaelV

    Jerry, even if the seven million figure is correct, that’s still far enough down the list for Obama’s comment to seem like an exaggeration. To be fair, “one of the biggest” is pretty ambiguous, but when I heard it I was thinking maybe top 5 or top 10 (and was really kind of surprised – I didn’t doubt he was right but planned on looking it up to find out an exact figure).

  • Don

    “Don’t take NIGYSOB away from GetReligion. It would have to fall silent on topics that bring in huge numbers of comments.”

    Way to go, Dave. Now you’ve got them!


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