A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama: U.S. “One of the Largest Muslim Countries.” Not!

President Barack Obama claimed that the U.S. is "one of the largest Muslim countries in the world" in terms of population. That strains the facts mightily. The U.S. Muslim population probably doesn’t even rank in the top 50.

Obama’s remark came in a June 1 interview with French TV correspondent Laura Haim:

Obama: June 1: Now, the flip side is I think that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam. And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there’s got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.

There’s no hard count of U.S. Muslims. The U.S. Census does not ask about religious affiliation.

At the high end of the estimates, a  2001 study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based on interviews with representatives of U.S. mosques, estimated about 2 million Muslims are associated with a mosque. From that, the authors projected: "Estimates of a total Muslim population of 6-7 million in America seem reasonable."

That’s a pretty soft estimate. What "seems reasonable" to CAIR, which describes itself as a "Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group," may seem to others inflated and self-serving. In any case the estimate is based on a guess that 4 million or 5 million American Muslims exist but don’t associate with mosques. But even if there are indeed 7 million U.S. Muslims, that still wouldn’t put the U.S. anywhere close to the nations with the largest Muslim populations, as ranked by Adherents.com, a well-documented Web site that tracks statistics on religious affiliations. China, at No. 9 on that list, has 37 million Muslims. The 7 million figure would put the U.S. at 32nd on an unusually well-sourced ranking on Wikipedia.

Furthermore, we judge that the true figure is much lower than 7 million. The Pew Research Center released a study in 2007, calling its methodology "the most comprehensive ever used to study Muslim Americans." The study was based on a poll of 60,000 respondents. Conclusion:

Pew Research Center, 2007: The total Muslim American population is estimated at 2.35 million, based on data from this survey and available Census Bureau data on immigrants’ nativity and nationality.

An even more recent study released in March of this year, and based on answers from 54,461 respondents, came up with results similar to the Pew study. The American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Connecticut’s Trinity College estimated the adult U.S. Muslim population at 1.35 million, not much different from Pew’s estimate of 1.4 million adult (meaning age 18 or over) Muslims. Both put the adult Muslim population at 0.6 percent of the total U.S. adult population. And that’s the figure currently used by the Central Intelligence Agency in its CIA World Factbook entry on the United States.

The ARIS survey did not attempt to estimate the number of Muslim children, as the Pew Research Center did. So we judge Pew’s 2.35 million figure to be the best available estimate of the total U.S. Muslim population.

That’s also the figure used by the Wikipedia ranking of countries with the largest Muslim populations, which puts the U.S. at No. 52. There are by most counts 195 countries in the world, so the U.S. would be in the top half, though not in the top one-quarter.

Note: We’ve advised elsewhere against using Wikipedia as an authoritative source. We have too often found errors, false information and undocumented claims posted there. Even now we can’t vouch for the accuracy of every figure used to arrive at its table of largest Muslim populations. But in this case we are impressed by the thoroughness of its documentation, its reliance on widely accepted primary sources such as the CIA World Factbook, the clear statement of methodology and the fact that the figure it uses for the U.S. population is the same one we judge to be most solidly based. On this subject we’ll accept Wikipedia’s information as the best available, until a better source presents itself.