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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1996, pgs. 13, 107

Issues in Islam

Muslims in America: The Nation’s Fastest Growing Religion

by M.M. Ali

The often-heard statement that “Islam is the fastest growing religion in America” elicits reactions varying from hope to fear. In fact, Muslims in America are not totally new kids on the block. They have been here for quite a while now. What is attracting attention are their growing numbers and their increasing visibility in this heterogeneous society, particularly in the urban centers.

According to Dr. Sayyid Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times, which has its own agenda, placed the number between 2 and 4 million two years ago. Dr. Diana Eck, who is working on the subject at Harvard University, believes the correct figure is somewhere in between.

How much of the growth is due to immigration also is hard to ascertain. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) provides information only on the places of origin of immigrants, and not on their religion. The INS data therefore provides a general picture which can become distorted in detail.

For example, the Arabs who come from various parts of the Middle East are not all Muslims. Similarly, immigrants from the Asian subcontinent can be Muslims, Hindus or Christians. While several organizations and researchers are collecting data on Muslims in America, to date there is no authoritative count. What is acknowledged by all, however, is that their numbers are growing rapidly.

Dr. Ahmed Totonji of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the Washington, DC area, projects that by the turn of the century, the number of Muslims in America will reach the 10 million mark. Dr. Hisham Al Talib, also of the IIIT, says: “At their present rate of growth, their number will double in 28 years’ time.”

U.S. Bureau of Census records shed no light on the matter. Its statistics, based on race, are of little help in determining religious affinities. America’s Muslims, it needs to be remembered, have come from all of the five major continents.

Historical records indicate the presence of a few Muslims on American soil early in the 16th century. Slaves brought in from Africa in the 17th century also included some Muslims, but their religiosity appears to have been lost while they were in bondage. There also is evidence that descendants of some of the Moors driven out of Spain found their way via the Caribbean islands to South Carolina and Florida in the late 18th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of Muslims immigrated to North America from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan and most settled in the upper Midwest. One of their earliest mosques was established in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Nation of Islam

In the early 1930s, a man named Fard Mohammed founded the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization that expanded under the leadership of Elijah Mohammed and is today led by Minister Louis Farrakhan. It was the NOI that Malcolm X first joined but later left to enter mainstream Sunni Islam, just as did Warith Mohammed, son of Elijah Mohammed, upon the death of his father.

The Nation of Islam therefore became a major gateway into orthodox Sunni Islam for African Americans, whose descendants generally are referred to as “indigenous Muslims.” At the same time, many African Americans have remained in the Nation of Islam. NOI supporters claim membership of between 50,000 and 100,000. Their detractors say they number around 20,000.

The majority of Muslims in the United States, however, are immigrants and their descendants. The 1965 relaxation in U.S. immigration laws increased the inflow, which continues to this day. In Yvonne Haddad’s book The Muslims of America, Carol Stone used 1980 census data to demonstrate that the numbers of Muslims were highest in California, New York and Illinois. At that time, 400,000 Muslims lived in New York, 180,000 in Illinois and some 30 percent of America’s Muslims lived in California. Today those numbers have more than doubled, and large numbers of Muslims are found in New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Michigan. A sizeable concentration also is found around the U.S. national capital in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia.

Organizational Growth

The end of World War II saw the arrival of large numbers of Muslim students from all parts of the Islamic world, on American university campuses. Initially small Muslim student associations were established on some campuses. A real effort to set up a national organization began in 1963 with the establishment of the Muslim Student Association (MSA).

It was at this time that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was expelled from Iran, Maulana Maudoodi was sentenced to death in Pakistan, Sayed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood was jailed and later executed in Egypt, the Masjumi Party was banned in Indonesia and the Algerian revolution was coming to a head. All of these developments had a very strong reaction among the Muslim students in Europe and America.

The MSA launched an “action plan,” setting up offices across the country with initial headquarters in Gary, Indiana. In 1975, the MSA acquired property in Plainsfield, Indiana and moved there. This also was the period when the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) was created to hold title to MSA properties such as Islamic centers, the American Trust Publications, the International Graphics Press and the Islamic Book Service.

In 1981 the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was formed to deal with all aspects of Islamic activity in the country, allowing MSA to concentrate on the campuses. Professional activities are now coordinated through such organizations as the American Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), the American Muslim Engineers and Scientists (AMES), and the Islamic Medical Association (IMA).

ISNA’s annual convention today attracts more than 10,000 members. Similarly, AMSE, AMSS and IMA hold their separate conventions each year. According to Yvonne Haddad, “ISNA is considered to be the national Muslim organization and generally represents the Islamic mainstream.” In the 1970s, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) was formed, which mostly consists of Muslims from the Asian subcontinent.

According to the American Muslim Council, a lobbying group formed in the mid-1980s and located in Washington, DC, there are today close to 2,000 mosques and Islamic community centers in the United States. The Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a new organization also based in Washington, DC, has become active protecting the human rights of the Muslims in America. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was established in 1980. ADC fights against stereotyping of Arabs in America.

Issues and Challenges

Since American Muslims are predominantly immigrants who have come from non-Western cultures, being transported to an alien environment has contributed to a feeling of insecurity. This is especially true regarding raising their children in the permissive American environment. However, most of these Muslim immigrants also are highly educated and have close and intact family structures. From this they derive an increasing sense of confidence.

Both first- and second-generation immigrants find themselves caught between two cultures wherein old verities linger on while new attitudes and outlooks become increasingly powerful.

The question before American Muslims is how to retain their core conservative values while swimming, with increasing ease, in the mainstream. In fact, most of the highly educated and intelligent immigrants and their children are enjoying conspicuous material success. The price they will pay in terms of family values and stability is still undetermined.

Christianity is the predominant religion in North America. Islam being another Abrahamic religion, the two have several commonalities. Both faiths are missionary in nature, but they can co-exist ideologically. The experience being new, it will take time to find out how. For now, the two religious groups must work at accommodation and develop a better understanding of and trust in each other. For sure, the Muslims are here to stay.

With time it will become obvious to the mainstream that the Muslims are a very positive addition to the American sectarian mosaic. Meanwhile it is also imperative for American Muslims to learn to assimilate with the mainstream without losing their identity and special characteristics.

One sure way of gaining entry is via the political route. Their growing numbers make American Muslims a political force that the existing political parties increasingly will seek to attract and accommodate.

What is needed is organization and structure. The AMC and the other new institutions have made a beginning. The process needs to be carried further.

American democracy provides full opportunity for all segments of the population to gain and grow to their fullest potential. America’s history and its social dynamics also have created an understanding and large-hearted people. If they see goodwill and friendship, they will meet it half-way.

Therefore, in spite of glitches stemming from the diversity of its own origins, Islam in America appears destined to become a particularly visible and active component of American society. If the present trends continue, American Muslims may well become a source of strength and support for Muslims all over the world—and sooner than even the most optimistic members of this expanding community dare to imagine.