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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 24, 2002

Faces of American Islam

We in the West have tradionally associated Islam with the Middle East, its birthplace, but now we see Islam spread world-wide and there is a need to study this demographic change, which may have all sorts of implications as Muslim believers increasingly settle in America and in other countries.
Our respective bookshelves groan under the weight of books bearing titles like Islam and the West, The Future of Islam and the West, and The Islamic World and the West. What is striking about these books - all quite recently written and published - is the anachronism of their geographic premise. With millions of Muslims now living in the West, especially in North America and Western Europe, the old dichotomy of Islam and the West exists no more. This presence of Muslims in the West has profound importance for both civilizations involved, the Western and the Islamic, and has a potential for both good and ill. Indeed, looking ahead, it is hard to see any other cultural interaction quite so fraught with implications as this one.

As has become evident of late, a vast number of Muslims, those living in Europe and the Americas no less than those elsewhere, harbor an intense hostility to the West. For most Muslims, this mix of envy and resentment remains a latent sentiment, but for some it acquires operational significance. Merely to conjure the names of Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden is to convey the power of this hatred, its diverse ideological roots, and its power to threaten. Their counterparts also live in the West, where they have a unique inclination not just to disrupt through violence but also to challenge the existing order. Will this challenge be contained or will it bring yet greater problems, including violence?

This essay focuses on just one portion of Western Islam, namely those Muslims who live in the United States and who are either immigrants or their descendants (hereafter referred to as "Muslim immigrants"). It does not deal with the other major component, the converts, nor does it deal with other Western countries.

Demography and Geography

The first challenge in studying Muslim immigrants in the United States is counting them. By law, the official census cannot count adherents of a religion, and Muslims are too few to show up reliably in most survey research. In addition, there are questions about whom to count (do Ahmadis, legally not considered Muslims in Pakistan, count as Muslims in the United States?). Taking these and other complications into account, a statistical picture is emerging that points to a total Muslim population in the United States of about 3 million, of which immigrants make up two-thirds to three-fourths. Accepting that this number is necessarily rough, it does point to somewhat over 2 million Muslim immigrants, or slightly less than 1 percent of the U.S. national population.