It seems relevant to ask about the size of the Muslim population in the United States, as a spirited debate rages about how many of them might be “extremists” or prone to “radicalization,” and this seems like the sort of hard fact our all-seeing mega-government would be able to provide. However, estimates of the American Muslim population vary wildly, and media reports are inconsistent about which source they use.
For example, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “After Paris and California Attacks, U.S. Muslims Feel Intense Backlash” last week, in which the size of the Islamic population was estimated at between 4 million and 12 million. That’s an incredibly large margin of uncertainty, and it’s hard to see where the high-end estimates are coming from. The 12 million Muslim figure appears to come from a Pakistani newspaper article… published in 1998. This estimate has surfaced time and again over the years since the 9/11 attack.
The more serious, non-ideological efforts to compile data on religious faith tend to produce the lowest estimates of the Muslim population. The official U.S. Census doesn’t ask questions about religious affiliation, and even if it did, the Census is taken too infrequently to give solid current data on fast-moving social trends.
A 2010 survey called the U.S. Religion Census found 2.6 million American Muslims in 2010, which tracks closely with the 2.75 million reported by the Pew Research Center. Both of those sources agreed Islam was among the fastest-growing religions in the United States.
However, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad claims there are between 2 and 7 million Muslims living in the United States, giving no hint of where the higher-end 7 million figure comes from. While conceding it is difficult to pinpoint the number more precisely, the Embassy asserts it is clear that “the Muslim-American population has been growing rapidly as a result of immigration, a high birth rate, and conversions.” They go on to cite the Pew Research statistics for other facts about the American Muslim population.
The 7 million estimate pops up a lot, often reported by mainstream media outlets without attribution as a firm number. It is very common to hear blithe assertions that 7 million Muslims live in the United States, without any concession that much lower estimates, sourced to serious studies, exist.
Daniel Pipes, who has been diligently tracking dubious estimates of the Muslim population ever since 9/11, notes that Islamic activist groups like to toss around estimates in the 7 to 8 million range, and lazy reporters accept their numbers without challenge. 7 million commonly pops up when a writer or speaker wants to claim the Muslim-American population in the United States is larger than the population of many Muslim countries. Even President Obama tried dropping the 7 million figure in his infamous 2009 Cairo speech… only to walk it back a few days later and claim 5 million.
If the 2010-2011 numbers from the U.S. Religion Census and Pew were reasonably accurate, and Islam in the United State is growing as quickly as analysts suggest, the 2015 population might be approaching 5 million, although that still seems high. It would also be useful to know what kind of Muslims they are – Sunni, Shiite, etc. A glance at the state of affairs in the Middle East makes it clear this is not a demographic that should be painted with a broad brush.
As mentioned, there is currently no way to determine the figures with any degree of accuracy… which means activists, the media, and the government can stretch or squeeze the Muslim population like taffy, to convey the impression of anything from a surging population with growing political and financial clout, to a tiny oppressed minority.