Americans estimate that 17% of the U.S. population is Muslim. In fact, Muslims only make up 1% of the population. So why is our perception so skewed?

In recent years, American attitudes toward Muslims has actually become more positive.
Image: Shutterstock

Muslim immigration has grown tremendously over the last few decades. Recent political debates over Muslim immigration and related issues have prompted many people to ask how many Muslims actually live in the United States.

Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask questions about religion, there is no official government count of the U.S. Muslim population—but a number of independent polls and studies by reputable organizations provide us with a fairly accurate estimation.

A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI’s annual “Perils of Perception” report asked Americans to estimate what percentage of the U.S. population is Muslim. The results averaged to 17%, which is 17 times higher than the actual figure. According to a 2015 report by Pew Research, there were an estimated 3.3 million Muslims living in the America, making up only 1% of the total population.

Civics Lesson: Islam in America

muslims families began immigrating to the United States in the late 1800sBetween 1878 and 1924, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, particularly from Syria and Lebanon, arrived in large numbers, with many settling in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and both North and South Dakota. Like most other migrants, they were seeking greater economic opportunity than in their homeland and often worked as manual laborers. 

One of the very first big employers for Muslims was Ford Company, mainly because Muslim immigrants were the only people willing to work in the harsh conditions of the factories. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of black people to the North was occurring at the same time, which encouraged the African American Islam revival and the growth of the African American Muslim Nationalist Movement that still exists to this day. The hope remains to restore the culture and faith that was destroyed during the era of slavery. During the 1940’s, Arab immigrants began to establish communities as well and by 1952, there were more than 1,000 Muslims in North America.

Image: Shutterstock 

So, what prompts Americans to overestimate?

Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, suggests that a mixture of high media exposure and negative coverage seems to be the reason.

Duffy explains:

“What we find with these questions is that people overestimate things they’re worried about – we see the same patterns when people guess at the level of immigration in countries or crime rates.


“The amount of discussion influences how big or important we think issues are and there is a lot of focus on Muslims. We know that negative or information that is seen to be threatening sticks in our minds more than positive information — that’s just how our brains work.” 

In more recent years, American attitudes towards Muslims are generally more positive—as shown by various other polls— and Americans increasingly believe Islam is compatible with other religions. Even as attitudes are changing, however, negative information is having an impact on what causes worry. For instance, Muslims more frequently appear in biased news stories and have been a hot topic in politics and popular culture post-9/11 era. We, as Americans, have adapted to this perpetual state of fear because that is what media outlets tend to focus on the most.

Americans’ estimate of the overall Muslim population in the U.S. is, indeed, outsized; however, many European countries’ perceptions are also off by similar margins. Muslims in France, for example, make up 7.5% of the total population, yet respondents’ guess was four times that (the average guess was 31%). As for British respondents, they guessed Muslims made up 15% of the total population (actual figure 4.8%).

In short, the inexorable force from the media and unscrupulous politicians is so pervasive it has created an alternate universe regarding Islamic culture. Then when the accurate numbers are presented to us— we quickly realize just how vicious and powerful this propaganda has been.

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