A new census of Muslim congregations is reviving controversies over how many Muslims are in the USA, how they are counted and why it matters. For minority religious groups, particularly Muslims and Jews, higher numbers can mean enhanced social and political clout in the U.S. public square.
On the campaign trail, will a politician stop by a synagogue or a mosque? When members of Congress vote on Middle Eastern policy, which home state constituency has more influence? When the school board sets next year's vacation calendar, whose holy days are recognized?
"Numbers are a major factor in being marginalized or being recognized by decision-makers in public policy," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group and a sponsor of this second mosque census.
The first census in 2000 counted 1,209 mosques. The tally became controversial when the census announced more than 6 million Muslims were in the USA. That figure was so high it would have vaulted Islam into one of the five largest religious denominations in the country.
But lead researcher Ihsan Bagby, now associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky-Lexington, says the 6 million figure actually was a "ballpark estimate." Bagby says he "extrapolated" the total from the 1.8 million adults counted in attendance by imams and mosque leaders. He wrapped in estimated numbers of family members who didn't attend, people in prison and people who may go to the mosque only for major festivals. No other national survey has counted anything close to Bagby's numbers.
Because the U.S. Census does not ask about religion, every tally is to some degree an estimate based on institutional or individual reporting. And every way of counting and determining whom should be counted has its critics. There is no agreement among or even within denominations on who is an authentic "member," says David Roozen, director of the Hartford (Conn.) Institute for Religious Research.
The institute is overseeing the mosque study as part of updating its comprehensive look at congregations to examine their fundamental role in American life. (MORE)