How chill are American Muslims?

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As the lede of Lauren Markoe’s RNS story suggests, the most striking findings of the new Gallup survey of American Muslims is that they are as optimistic as other Americans, and that their sense of well-being has increased faster over the past three years than those of other faiths. So much for the ill effects of Islamophobia, right?

Maybe. Some interviews with Muslims were conducted in February and March of 2010before the “Ground Zero Mosque” and all the other anti-mosque-building protests broke out around the country. Others were conducted in October. It’s not clear whether or how interviews conducted during these two points in time differed.

Be that as it may, no religious group aligns more closely with American Muslims than American Jews. After the Muslims, the Jews are the most likely to approve of President Obama and to see the Iraq war as a mistake. They are more likely than other non-Muslim religious groups to believe that Muslims are loyal to the U.S. and have no sympathy for al Qaeda. And 66 percent of Jews agree that most Americans are
prejudiced towards Muslims, as compared with only 60 percent of Muslims
themselves. My friend Jerome Chanes would call this gevaltism (as in Oy Gevalt!) by proxy. I’d say that whatever their worries about Muslim hostility to Israel, Jews are liberals with an acute awareness of what it’s like to be an American non-Christian suspected of dual loyalty.

Given that Gallup’s randomly obtained telephone sample totalled 868,264 adults, yielding 3,883 self-identified Muslims who could be controlled for numerous demographic variables based on U.S. Census data, you’d figure that one of the benefits of the survey would be one of the best estimates of the Muslim population in the U.S. ever offered. But you’d be wrong. Instead, the report ends with the following two sentences:

Only a census-style study that includes every household and inquires about religious affiliation, which is currently prohibited by law, would be able to provide such an estimate. Without the rigor of that model, we are limited to describing the Muslim Americans without providing the much-debated and discussed topic of the total number of Muslims living in America.

To say that this is nonsense is to indulge in gross understatement. Estimating the size of religious groups in the U.S. using telephone sampling methodology is absolutely normal, and large-sample surveys such as our 2008 American Religious Identification Survey are widely recognized–including by the Bureau of the Census in its Statistical Abstract–as providing dependable measures of religious identification in the U.S. In fact, just taking Gallup’s aggregate numbers yields an adult Muslim population of .44 percent–precisely the same as the number obtained by Pew’s large 2007 Religious Landscape Survey.

The problem, of course, is that the 2001 Mosque Study Project‘s figure of 7 million–over 2 percent of the population–is still being tossed around as a legitimate estimate–one that would put the Muslim population of the country ahead of the Jewish population and thus make it the largest non-Christian religion in the country. Personally, I’m not sure those bragging rights serve the Muslim community that well these days. But some Muslim organizations have tied their wagons to the outsize estimate and Gallup, whose work on Muslims sails under its Abu Dhabi affiliate, clearly wanted to stay out of trouble.