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Muslims in the West

John L. Esposito

Who are the Muslims of America?

Muslim Americans are Americans who came here from sixty-eight different countries as well as indigenous African Americans and converts from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They are one of the most diverse communities in the world, racially, economically, and politically. Although estimates of the Muslim American population vary widely, it is safe to say that there are at least five to seven million, making Islam the third largest religion (after Christianity and Judaism) in America. Many believe that in the first half of the twenty-first century Islam will become the second-largest religion in America.

In a national portrait of Muslim Americans conducted by Gallup in 2009, 28 percent of Muslims categorize themselves as “white”; 18 percent say they are Asian, and a surprising 18 percent classify themselves as “other,” which may reflect their identification with more than one group. One percent say they are Hispanic. The majority (56 percent) of Muslims in America are immigrants who came to pursue political and religious freedom, economic prosperity, or education. Thirty-five percent are native-born African American Muslims, the descendants of slaves who have struggled for their civil rights as well as economic and social justice.

Muslims in America are predominantly young. Thirty-six percent are eighteen to twenty-nine years old (versus 18 percent in the general population), and 37 percent are thirty to forty-four years of age (versus 26 percent for Americans overall). The sample size of Muslims sixty-five and older was too small to report. Education is a priority for many Muslims, who, after Jews, are the most educated religious community in the United States. Most significant, students account for 31 percent of the American Muslim population, as compared to 10 percent in the general population. Many Muslims have graduated from college: 40 percent have a college degree or more, compared to 29 percent of Americans overall. Muslim women are equal to men in holding college or postgraduate degrees. Muslim women also report incomes more nearly equal to men's, compared with women in other faith groups.

Muslims include men and women spanning the socioeconomic spectrum: professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, and educators), corporate executives, small business owners, as well as blue-collar workers. Seventy percent have a job (paid or unpaid), compared to 64 percent of Americans overall. However, a higher proportion (24 percent) are self-employed. American Muslims' employment situation is reflected in the fact that a majority, 71 percent, a higher proportion than in the general population, agree that most people who want to get ahead in America can succeed if they are willing to work hard.

The diversity of Muslim Americans is clearly reflected in their political views. They are the religious group that is the most evenly spread along the political spectrum. Thirty-eight percent claim to be moderate, and others are equally divided on either side (29 percent liberal or very liberal and 25 percent conservative or very conservative). Contrary to the conventional wisdom, 44 percent of Muslims cited domestic policy as a more important factor in influencing their votes, versus 34 percent who cited foreign policy.

Many are not aware that Muslims have a long history in America. The explorers, traders, and settlers who visited the New World from the time of Columbus included Moriscos (Spanish Muslims who hid their Muslim faith), and between 14 percent and 20 percent of the African slaves brought to America between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries were Muslim, although they were forced to convert to Christianity. Other immigrants during this period, particularly Muslim Indians and Arabs, who were not slaves, were able to maintain their spiritual, cultural, and social identity.

In the nineteenth century the Muslim population increased when significant numbers of immigrants from the Arab world (Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) settled in the Midwest and Canada as blue-collar workers. After World War II, Muslim immigrants included large numbers of Palestinians who had lost their homes after the 1948 creation of Israel, and elites from the Middle East and South Asia seeking education or professional advancement. In recent decades, significant numbers of immigrants from the Muslim world have been students as well as well-educated professionals and intellectuals from South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East who were emigrating for political and economic reasons. African American Islam originated with the Nation of Islam in 1930. (See page 57, “Is there a difference between Muslims and Black Muslims?”) Many Muslims have worked hard to sustain their Islamic identity and pass it down to their children and to establish institutions and community structures—including mosques, Islamic centers, Islamic schools, Islamic publication organizations, interest-free financial institutions, and charitable organizations—to support these goals. The largest Muslim communities in the United States are in Boston, New York City, Detroit, Dearborn, Toledo, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles/Orange County.

Muslims are part of the fabric of American society; they have become integrated, economically and educationally, and are becoming more active in the American political process both as individuals and organizationally. Two Muslims now serve in the U.S. Congress, others are in the Obama administration and government agencies, and still others are active in local politics. Muslim organizations have also become more visible in lobbying Congress. A host of national and international organizations have been created to monitor and promote Muslim causes and interests. Among the more prominent are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID).

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, concludes, “Muslim Americans are very much like the rest of the country … They do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.” Ninety-seven percent of Muslims polled believe they should donate to non-Muslim social service programs like aid for the homeless, and 90 percent say Muslims should participate in interfaith activities.

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