Blind Men and the Elephant: Media Outlets, Political Pundits and the Pew Study on Muslim Americans

Zahid Bukhari

Enter your contThe Pew Research Center has issued an interesting study of Muslim Americans on May 22 and it was reported widely in the American media. The thrust of the Pew study, “Muslim American: Middle Class and mostly Mainstream” is that Muslim Americans are “decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes.” It is, however, shocking that several media outlets and political pundits projected Pew’s overall positive picture of the American Muslim community in a very negative and biased way.

Three issues from the Pew study have become the focus of media reporting and discussion: support of suicidal bombing and al-Qaida among youth under 30 and African American Muslims; Muslim’s belief that the Arabs were not responsible for the 9/11 attack; and the low count of Muslim Americans (2.35 million). The wildly different interpretations of some of the Pew study results remind me of the classical story of the ‘blind men and the elephant’ when the blind men tried to explain the elephant by touching one part and then describing it with their own perspectives or prejudices.

Let me emphasize at the outset that the Pew study confirmed many of the similar findings of previous nationwide surveys of the American Muslim community conducted by the Project MAPS at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (1999-2004). (The Center was renamed the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in 2005.) The Project MAPS: Muslims in American Public Square, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted the first ever nationwide survey, American Muslim Poll, through Zogby International in 2001. The second American Muslim Poll was conducted before the presidential election of 2004.

Both of the MAPS nationwide surveys covered the American Muslims’ demographics, religious practices, opinion about and behavior in the areas of social and political issues, September 11 and its aftermath, foreign policy, and media and financial habits. More than 100 questions were asked in each of these surveys to a representative sample population of 1781 and 1840 American Muslims respectively. Project MAPS has established that the American Muslims, certainly a new kid on the block, constitute a diverse, affluent and professional, activist, religious and politically savvy community. The results of the two surveys are available at www.projectmaps.com.

It is significant that the Pew study once again presented the middle class stature and mainstream nature of the Muslim Americans, who are here from 70 different countries of the world (MAPS counted 80 countries). In fact, a small replica of the Muslim World is living in the United States. However, the ratio of professionals to population among the American Muslim community is much higher than it is in any Muslim country. The tragedy, however, is that the Muslim community is not a partner in any policy debating forum.

The American Muslim community is the 'New Hampshire' of the public diplomacy efforts with the Muslim world. If the policy makers are not able to win this ‘primary’ they will not succeed in the larger battle of winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim population all over the globe. Unfortunately, the present administration has failed miserably in this regard. Only one reality has been registered during the last six years: Muslim Americans are different than the Muslims in Europe.

At least three major media outlets competed with each other portraying in a provocative style the support of young Muslims under 30 for suicide bombing to defend Islam. The New York Post, for example, put the heading “TIME BOMBS IN OUR MIDST: 26% OF YOUNG U.S. MUSLIMS BACK KILLINGS.” The USA Today’s headline was, POLL: 1 IN 4 YOUNGER U.S. MUSLIMS SUPPORT SUICIDE BOMBINGS. The headline on CBS News online stated that 26% OF YOUNG U.S. MUSLIMS OK BOMBS. According to Pew study, among Muslims younger than 30, 15% say that suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified (2% often, 13% sometimes), 11% say, rarely justified and 69% say it can never be justified.

Contributing to this frenzy of creating a culture of fear, CNN ran a caption of “Supporting Terror?” at the bottom of the screen when the moderator was interviewing three young Muslims about the poll. It is worth mentioning that according to a WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in December 2006, more than half of the American public (51 percent) justified “bombing and other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” (5 percent often, 19 percent sometimes and 27 percent rarely). Less than half of the American public (46 percent) was of the view that it can never be justified.

However, the American public support for ‘bombing intentionally at civilians’ never made headlines in our media but the Muslim youth’s opinion did. With this type of contrast coverage, it is much easier to understand why the majority (57 percent) of Muslim Americans in the Pew study consider the coverage of Muslims and Islam in the mainstream American media as unfair. (MAPS survey has 76 percent saying the portrayal is not fair).

The estimate of Muslim Americans has always been a source of anxiety among certain organizations and commentators. Project MAPS did not try to make a population estimate through the national sample survey. It has set its goal to analyze the internal dynamics of the Muslim community. Prof. Ilyas Ba-Yunus and Prof. Kassim Kone wrote a chapter in the MAPS volume on the demographics of American Muslims. After making a critical analysis of various estimates of the Muslim population in the United States, they offered their projected numbers as 5.74 million Muslim Americans. The Pew study, on the other hand, estimated the total Muslim American population as 2.35 million. The Pew study also mentioned, however, that the estimate “is an approximation, subject to the limitations of the methodology used to derive it”, and because it is based upon only landline phone survey, “it is possible that the number of Muslim Americans is higher.”

The Jerusalem Post online published a blog, by the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, New York, with the title “In the Trenches: US Muslim Population Figures: Fact and Fiction.” The author declared all other estimates of the American Muslim population as “exaggerated and politically motivated.”

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.

The debate over the number of American Muslims is interesting. On February 21, 1989, the New York Times published a story in which they put the number of American Muslims at 6 million. After almost twelve years, Tom Smith of NORC, in a sponsored study for the American Jewish Committee, estimated that the total Muslim population in the USA was 1.9 million in 2001. Other scholars, however, strongly disagreed with his estimate and put the numbers in the range of 5 – 7 million. Even Hollywood took part in the debate when, in 2005, one of the characters of Syriana movie claimed that there were 10 million Muslims in America.

Take into account the dispute over the Iranian Muslim population. According to the Pew study, Iranian Muslims are 8 percent of the total Muslim American population of 2.35 million. The Iranian population in Census 2000 was 338,266, and, again, according to Pew, only 26 percent of them were Muslims which means that there are 87,949 Iranian Muslims living in the United States. But the problem with this number is that it constitutes less than 4 percent of Pew’s total Muslim Americans estimate of 2.35 million compared to the 8 percent mentioned earlier.

According to the Pew estimate Pakistani Americans are another 8 percent of the total 2.35 million Muslims. Based on a study, conducted by a former official of the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, there were an estimated half a million Pakistani Americans living in the US. If we consider these half million Pakistani Americans as 8 percent, then the total population of Muslim Americans would be 6.25 million, not 2.35 million.

The case of Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims raises further questions. According to the Pew study, they are 4 percent and 3 percent, respectfully, of the total Muslim American population. The Census 2000 tells us that there were 1.9 million Indians in the United States. However, 4 percent of Pew’s 2.35 million is 94,000. These numbers, I am afraid, will certainly be challenged by the scholars of this field. Bangladeshi Muslims are becoming an energetic and emerging group among Muslim Americans. However, any claim that their numbers are almost at par with the Indian Muslims in the United States needs more research and facts.

Scholars and activists may have different estimates of the American Muslim population. However, there is a consensus among all circles that the Muslim population has been growing in the United States by three means: immigration, conversion and relatively higher birth rate. There was a slight dip in immigration from the Muslim majority countries after 9/11. The recent data from Homeland Security, however, showed that the immigration has been generally on increase from these countries.

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, I would like to invite the American Jewish Committee, along with other national religious groups, to 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.

Meanwhile, the debate about the various estimates of Muslim Americans continues. It makes more sense to use a range of 5-7 million, instead of any definite number, as a reasonable educated estimate of the Muslim American population. Hopefully, the polling firms would also make necessary weighting adjustments to reflect the same range of the Muslim American population in presenting their nationwide survey results.

Zahid Bukhari was the former Project Director of the American Muslim Studies Program at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.