Many Americans, including Donald Trump, are concerned over whether Muslim immigrants and their descendants are assimilating into American society. This topic is tricky for a few reasons. First, almost all Muslims who are immigrants or descended from them entered the United States after 1968 so there haven’t been many generations yet. As a result, the evidence and research on Muslim assimilation are not as complete as they should be. A second problem is that many studies or surveys do not compare the opinions of Muslims with society at large or other minorities. Where possible, such comparisons will be made below. A third problem is that, until recently, sociologists weren’t interested in Muslim assimilation in the United States. Whereas there is a vast literature on Hispanic assimilation going back generations, Muslims were overlooked entirely prior to the 1990s.
To mix my personal experience with this post, my brother and I are two of a handful of third-generation descendants of Muslim immigrants. Our paternal grandparents came from Iran in the late-1940s while our maternal grandparents were the descendants of Europeans. Nobody on that side of the family identifies as a Muslim anymore let alone practices, as far as I know, and none of those who were born Muslim raised their children as such.
My wife and her family have a similar experience although her father was born a Muslim and immigrated here in the 1970s. The extended portions of my family and my wife’s family mostly immigrated after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Thus, I am deeply interested in this topic for personal as well as professional reasons.
The United States government does not ask Americans or immigrants about their religious beliefs, with the exception of refugees. Thus, we have to rely on private surveys and other methods of estimating the Muslim population in the United States. Many of these surveys do not distinguish between different sects of Islam but merely on self-identification. This, a Sunni Muslim immigrant from Saudi Arabia is just as Muslim as an African-American convert to the Nation of Islam.
A 2015 Pew Research Center report estimated that there are roughly 3.3 million Muslims in the United States equal to just over 1 percent of the population – up from Pew’s estimates of about 2.4 million in 2007 and 2.6 million in 2010. The U.S. Religion Census (not be confused with the U.S. Census Bureau) in 2010 found that there were 2.6 million Muslims, equal to about 0.84 percent of the U.S. population.
Seven of the most methodologically sound estimates of the size of the Muslim population around the turn of the Millennium found there to be between 1.5 million and 3.4 million Muslims in the United States. Five of those seven estimates found that there were between 2.3 and 2.9 million Muslims. Compared to the more recent estimates by Pew and the U.S. Religion Census above, the Muslim population has grown slowly.
Births and immigration are the main sources of growth for the Muslim population. Pew in 2011 estimated the total fertility rate (TFR) of Muslim women in the United States to be 2.5 children per woman and just 2.2 for Muslim women born here – both above the U.S. TFR of 1.9 in 2011. Roughly 5 percent of the stock of immigrants in the United States is Muslim. One Pew paper estimates that 80,000 to 90,000 immigrants a year are Muslim while another found 115,000 a year in 2009. Pew estimates that there will be 6.2 million American Muslims by 2030 that comprise 1.7 percent of the population.
A total of 63 percent of Muslims are immigrants, 15 percent are the children of immigrants, and 22 percent have ancestors who have been here for at least three generations. Many of those third-generation and above Muslims are likely converts to Islam or the descendants of African Americans who converted – but the percentages are in doubt. Muslim immigrants are ethnically and racially diverse. About 41 percent were born in the Middle East and North Africa but the most common country of origin is Pakistan. Racial self-identification is trickier to pin down than the country of origin.
Muslims tend to be geographically concentrated. Around 81 percent of all Muslims live in just eight states. Texas has more Muslims than any other state (Figure 1). Illinois, however, has more Muslims as a percent of its population than any other state.
Muslims per State
Conversion and Apostasy in American Islam
The number of Muslims in the United States is not just affected by births, deaths, and immigration but also by conversion and apostasy – such as the recent conversion of 2010 Miss USA winner Rima Fakih to Catholicism. According to Pew, 23 percent of those raised Muslims do not identify as Muslim by the time they are adults. The General Social Survey (GSS), according to Darren W. Sherkat, shows that 32 percent of those raised Muslim are apostates.
Islamic apostasy in the United States by country of origin or ethnicity is generally unavailable. One exception is for Iranian-Americans. A 2008 poll of them found that 42 percent self-identified as Muslim while just four years later a mere 31 percent of them did. That is quite a decline in just a few short years but the sample size is also small so caution is warranted. Iran is officially 99.4 percent Muslim and although religious minorities are more likely to emigrate, there is a substantial religious difference between Iranian-Americans and Iranians.
There are also converts to Islam. Pew estimates that 23 percent of American Muslims, or 760,000 people, are converts. According to Pew, that percentage equals the number of apostates meaning that there is no-net-growth due to conversion. If Sherkat’s 32 percent apostasy figure for American Muslims is true then they are leaving Islam, on net.
Many converts are prisoners who do not stay with Islam for the long run. Estimates of the number of incarcerated Muslims are within a narrow range. Between 9.4 percent and 15 percent of all prisoners nationwide are Muslims, which translate to 227,000 to 360,000 incarcerated Muslims. According to another estimate, there have been about 300,000 conversions to Islam in prison during the last decade. Professor Lawrence Mamiya of Vassar College estimates that 10 percent of all prison inmates have converted to Islam – about 242,000. Michael Waller quotes a higher figure but he does not provide a citation or a method of estimation. Thus, it’s likely that nearly all or a substantial majority of incarcerated Muslims actually converted while incarcerated.
Based on these figures, 30 to 40 percent of the 760,000 nationwide converts to Islam could be incarcerated. These converts are not serious long-term adherents to their new faith. Professor Mamiya estimates that only 20 percent of prison converts continue on as Muslims after they are released. If the 20 percent retention rate for prison converts is the same as non-prison converts, a possibility considering that religious converts often change religions multiple times and they are less likely to pray than those born Muslim, then the long-term conversion figure should be even lower. Thus, it’s possible that the Pew figures overstate the degree of conversion to Islam.
Additional facts would shed light on how conversion and apostasy affect Muslim demographics. The number of reversions to Islam, although likely small if the research from Canada or the United Kingdom is similar to the American experience, would reveal more about the long term net conversion rate. Another is whether the converted prisoners are incarcerated for long periods of time or whether the turnover is quick and substantial. The last is how many non-prison converts stay with Islam for the long term.
Muslim Assimilation in the United States – What the Research Says
The most comprehensive literature survey of Muslim assimilation displays how little quantitative research has actually been conducted on this crucial question, especially in the United States. Since the U.S. Census does not collect data on religion, private surveys and polls are the sources for information on American Muslims. This post will examine some aspects of Muslim American assimilation while a follow-up post will look at religious beliefs.
Income and Education
According to Pew’s 2011 survey, Muslim Americans are about as likely to live in a household with an income of $100,000 a year or above as the general public but also more likely to live in a poorer household with $30,000 in income or less. Foreign-born Muslims are both more likely to be in the $100,000 or above category and the bottom category. Income increases with age, thus explaining why Muslims are more likely to be poorer than the general population. In Pew, a massive 59 percent of U.S. Muslims are between the ages of 18 and 39 compared to just 39 percent of the general public in the same age bracket. The percentage of the generation population that is 55 years old or higher is almost three times as great as U.S. Muslims. Gallup found that 73 percent of Muslim Americans are between the ages of 18 and 44.
More than a quarter of Muslims have a college or above education, very similar to the general population but still greater than natives. A quarter of U.S. Muslims are enrolled in college compared to just 13 percent of the general public and 27 percent of the native born. Similarly, Gallup finds that 31 percent of Muslims are full-time students, a more than three-fold difference above the U.S. general population.
Pew found that, compared to the general public, Muslims are a little less likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be employed part-time, and about as likely to not be employed although more of them are looking for work. This survey also found that 20 percent of Muslims are self-employed or small business owners compared to 17 percent of the general public and 21 percent of all immigrants. Gallup finds that 70 percent of Muslims have a job, the highest of any religious group surveyed and above the 64 percent reported for the general population. A full 30 percent of those employed are in the professions, 4 percentage point ahead of the U.S. general population but 12 percentage points behind the most professional religious demographic. The breakdown of Muslims in full, part time, and unpaid work is very similar to the rest of the population but 24 percent of them are self-employed – the highest of any religious group and 7 percentage points above the general population.
Gender and Sex Norms
Muslims in the United States mostly have opinions between those of other Americans and their fellow co-religionists in Muslim majority countries. This paper has a sexual liberalization and gender equality indices based on questions pooled from responses in the World Values Survey. Muslim immigrants in the West had a sexual liberalization opinion score of 37 compared to 24 in their countries of origin and 50 in their new homes. Their gender equality opinion score was 75 compared to 57 in their countries of origin and 82 in their new countries. Although this paper does not analyze the United States specifically, it gives a good broad sample.
According to Pew, in 2011 only 39 percent of Muslims think homosexuality should be accepted, 19 percentage points below the general public. However, those numbers are up 12 percentage points from 2007 so they appear to be moving in the right direction although they have quite a way to go to catch up to the general public.
Focusing on the United States, a 2009 paper that combined numerous different surveys found that 77 percent of American mosque-goers agreed that “women need a great role in the mosque” while 18 percent were neutral and 6 percent disagreed. A 2011 Pew survey found that only 20 percent of respondents thought women should pray alongside men in mosques. Furthermore, 48 percent wanted them to pray separately while a quarter wanted them to pray behind men. That might be why Muslim American women are some of the most active mosque reformers.
Pew found that 40 percent of Muslim women never wear the hijab. About half of the Muslim women interviewed for another small study wore the hijab while none wanted to wear the niqab, which is a more extensive head covering. This paper also includes many unconvincing arguments, many from the mouths of Muslim American women, about why hijabs help them reconcile their religious beliefs with the society around them.
Gallup found that Muslim men attend mosque slightly more than women in contrast to every other religious group and the general population, with the exception of Jews. Muslim women are also more likely than Muslim men to describe themselves as thriving. Pew found that Muslims were much more likely to see men as political leaders than women, compared to the general population. In the economic sphere, 8 percent of Muslims think women should not be able to work outside of the home compared to 2 percent of the general public. However, Muslim Americans are less likely to “completely agree” with women working outside of the home than the general public.
In 2011, Pew found that 55 percent of U.S. Muslims are married compared to 54 percent of the general public. Recall from above that Muslim youth probably understates their marriage rate. Perhaps reflecting the different age distribution, Gallup found that Muslims are the most likely to be single and the least likely to be married. Religious and ethnic endogamy among the second and higher generations in Europe is high while the evidence of that in the United States is limited. According to Pew, 17 percent of Muslims are married to non-Muslims – higher than the 8 percent among U.S. Christians.
Assimilation and General Feelings about America
Pew found that U.S. Muslims are more likely to be satisfied with national conditions than dissatisfied, 56 percent to 38 percent, in contrast to the general public which was only 23 percent satisfied and 73 percent dissatisfied. Three-quarters of Muslims also think that most can get ahead with hard work compared or 62 percent of the general public.
A total of 56 percent of American-Muslims think that Muslims want to adopt American customs and ways of life, 20 percent want to be distinct, and 16 percent want to be both. Thus, 72 percent of Muslim respondents think Muslims either want to assimilate entirely or partly. Presumably, much of the desire to avoid assimilation comes from the impulse to preserve their religion and its traditional gender norms from dominant American values.
Concerns over Muslims-American support for violence, al Qaeda, or cooperation with law enforcement also abound. The results of a Pew survey in Table 1 show that American Muslims have opinions on these topics that are very similar to those of the general public and the native born. Interestingly, native-born Americans are slightly more understanding of suicide bombing than Muslims. Furthermore, Muslims are half as likely as the general public to have a favorable view of al Qaeda. The responses to that question indicate that many respondents don’t know what al Qaeda is – the biggest surprise.
Responses to Security and Extremism Concerns, 2011
Concerns about Islamic extremism around the world
Not too/Not at all
Concerns about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S.
Native Born (All)
Not too/Not at all
How much support for extremism among Muslims in the U.S.?
Native Born (All)
Great deal/Fair amount
Not too much/None at all
Suicide bombing can be justified …
Native Born (All)
View of al Qaeda
Native Born (All)
Are Muslims in the U.S. cooperating with law enforcement agencies?
Cooperating as much as they should
Not cooperating enough
Cooperating too much
Source: “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism,” Pew Research Center, Q75, Q76, Q90, Q93, Q97, Q98.
American Muslims are much less supportive of suicide bombing than Muslims in Muslim countries. The only other countries with responses in the single-digits for “Often/Sometimes justified” are Pakistan and Turkey. Favorable views of al Qaeda are also significantly more common in every Muslim country except for Turkey.
Gallup also asked whether it is justified for an individual or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians. A whopping 89 percent of Muslims said “never” while 11 percent said “sometimes.” Muslims were the most likely, of any religious group surveyed, to respond that targeting and killing civilians was never justified. In the same survey, when asked about the military targeting and killing civilians, 78 percent of Muslims said “never” and 21 percent said “sometimes.” Muslims and those without a religion were the only two groups of respondents by religion where a majority answered “never.”
The differences between Muslim Americans and other Americans are small on most of these measures. The assimilation of Muslim immigrants and their descendants is proceeding well. My next post in this series will examine Muslim American religiosity.