American Muslims

American Muslims September 21, 2017

There are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, making it the world’s second largest religion. (Christianity is the first largest, with 2.1 billion adherents. And the Hindu Tradition is third, with 900 million.) Projections estimate that Islam will become the world’s largest religion by 2070. So there are many reasons to increase our familiarity with the Islamic tradition—from correcting misinformation that exacerbates Isalamophobia, to equipping ourselves to be better able to advocate for a more open, liberal, and progressive Islam of the future.

And our motivation should be not only be to dismantle prejudice, but also to end the irrational wasting of our limited taxpayer resources. For instance, “By the end of 2016, Muslim terrorists were responsible for 123 of the 240,000 murders in the United State since 9/11. Yet counter-terrorism remained the number one priority of the FBI, which spends several billion dollars annually to prevent and prosecute Muslim terrorists.” While a certain level of funding is needed to help prevent future attacks, we seem to be well into the territory of diminishing marginal returns. Moreover, when representatives of our government routinely harass innocent Muslim citizens, we sow seeds of resentment and alienation, and fertilize the soil in which future terrorism can grow.

A few data points may also be illuminating. For instance, new survey results released a few weeks ago about “America’s Changing Religious Identity” included the headline that, “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.”

There are at least two other trends about Muslims in America worth highlighting:

  1. Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined. Jewish Americans constitute 2% of the public, while Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each constitute only 1% of the public. All other non-Christian religions constitute an additional 1%.

  2. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old…. The median ages of Hindus (32 years), Muslims (32 years), Buddhists (36 years), religiously-unaffiliated Americans (37 years), and Hispanic Protestants (37 years) are below 40.

That’s a lot of numbers to keep track of, so I’ll repeat the highlights about Islam: Muslims are approximately 1% of the U.S. population. And of that 1%, one-third of Muslims are under the age of 30.

And although I do not want to overwhelm you with data, there are a few more helpful points worth considering about Islam in America in recent decades:

  • In 1967, there were probably fewer than 250,000 self-identifying Muslims in the United States; today, there are about 3.35 million.
  • The growth of the Muslim community is largely due to immigration. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty reformed the racist system of immigration that largely prohibited immigrants from countries perceived as non-white. Millions of non-white people have immigrated to the United States since then, and perhaps two million of them have been Muslim.
  • In 1967, there were perhaps fewer than 200 mosques in the country. Today, there are more than 2,000.
  • Today, the sectarian profile of Muslim America roughly mirrors that of the rest of the Muslim world. The majority of Muslim Americans are Sunni, while 16% identify as Shi‘a, 14% say they are “just Muslim,” and 4% are members of smaller communities such as the Ahmadiyya movement and the Nation of Islam.

No more data, I promise!

HussainMy larger point is that the stories we tell matter. And some of this data begins to point us toward a story different than the tired debates about “Islam and the West” or “Islam and America” as if they were completely oppositional, with nothing in common. In contrast, as Amir Hussain, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, details in her important book Muslims and the Making of America, a more accurate—and arguably much more helpful and hopeful—story to tell may be about “Islam in the West” and “Muslims in America.” After all, Muslims have always been in the United States of America—since before there was an America (116).

As an example of learning how to tell that story better, I will lift up one paragraph from President Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, delivered at Cairo University—an address worth revisiting in full:

Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.

In my post tomorrow on “Islam in America,” I will unpack a few of those details more fully.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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