Those concerned about Islamophobia in America can take heart from The American Mosque, the latest study by University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby conducted under the auspices of my friends at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Since Bagby's last study in 2000, the mosque count has risen 74 percent, from 1,209 to 2,106. The majority of mosque leaders are moderates who take a flexible approach to the interpretation of Islamic law. Overwhelmingly, they favor integration of Muslims into American society. And post-9/11, the proportion of mosque leaders who think that American society is hostile to Islam has dropped by more than half, from 54 percent to 25 percent. All told, Muslims seem to be getting more and more comfortable in their skins in America.
One caveat, however. Although the study, based on questionnaires filled out by the mosque leaders, does not claim to provide a precise estimate of the American Muslim population, Bagby uses it to call into question the most accurate estimates that do exist. As he writes:
Muslims who attend Eid Prayer (the high holiday prayers after Ramadan and Hajj) increased from about 2 million in 2000 to about 2.6 million in 2011. The total Muslim population cannot be determined by this figure, but it does call into question the low estimates of 1.1-2.4 million Muslims in America. If there are 2.6 million Muslims who pray the Eid prayer, then the total Muslim population should be closer to the estimates of up to 7 million.
Now, that 7 million estimate was Bagby's own, which he arrived at in 2000 by taking mosque leaders' estimates of attendance at the year's most heavily attended holiday, multiplying by three, and throwing in an extra million. Those "low estimates," by contrast, are very large telephone surveys by Pew along with Trinity's own American Religious Identifications Surveys (ARIS).
Pew's estimates vary from .4 to .8 percent of the American population, for reasons that I've discussed at length here and here and here. The three ARIS surveys, which the U.S. Census publishes in its Statistical Abstract as the best data available on American religious identification, show the Muslim share of the population growing from .3 percent of the population in 1990 to .5 percent in 2001, to .6 percent in 2008. However you slice it, all the bona fide demographic surveys indicate that the total number of Muslims in America is under 3 million, and very likely closer to 2 million than 3.
It's possible, of course, that Muslims are reluctant to identify themselves as such to an anonymous survey researcher because of their fear of anti-Muslim sentiment. But The American Mosque suggests that any such fear is on the wane. More likely, the mosque leaders are overestimating their attendance figures. No doubt, there's political significance in determining the largest non-Christian religious grouping America; i.e. Jews or Muslims. But unless and until there's better reason to credit Bagby's 7 million estimate, no one should touch it with a ten foot pole.