What Do Americans Really Know About Islam?

By:  Heather Abraham 

At a recent gathering of intelligent and progressive women I was reminded how little Americans know about Islam.  The atmosphere of the meeting was creative and the conversation clever until the word Islam was uttered—floating like a poison balloon above our heads.  Immediately, a women sitting to my right grimaced and said “I don’t like how Arabs treat their wives.”  Islam=Arab=misogynism?  Although I often encounter this type of reflexive response on the topic of Islam, I was startled.  I did not expect such an uninformed statement coming from this group.   

For the thousandth time, I asked myself–how much do Americans really know about Islam?  Let’s face it; Americans know more about the sex lives of Tiger Woods and Jesse James than they do about Islam.  Unfortunately, most Americans learn about Islam primarily through various media outlets which have miserably failed to provide a balanced view of the world’s second largest religion.  Islam is here to stay and Americans need to begin to question the media’s agenda and they need to take initiative and do some investigation on their own.  

I have several problems with the above statement but for brevity’s sake, I will take on Islam=Arab and save the rest for a later article.  At the mere mention of Islam, many Americans conjure up images of Bedouin Arab men with numerous unfortunate, anonymous, and powerless wives or they imagine the feared dark haired-crazy eyed Islamist (whatever that means) mentioned so incessantly on Fox News and CBN.  In reality, ethnic Arabs comprise a relatively small group within Islam’s 1.57 billion adherents. 

If Arabs do not make up the majority of Muslims—who does?  According to the Pew Research Center’s informative report, Mapping the Muslim World, “more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% in the Middle East and Northern Africa.”  The ten largest Muslim populations by country are as follows:  

  • Indonesia 202 million
  • Pakistan 174 million
  • India 160 million
  • Bangladesh 145 million
  • Egypt 78.5 million
  • Nigeria 78 million
  • Iran 74 million
  • Turkey 73 million
  • Algeria 34 million
  • Morocco 32 million 

It is interesting to note that none of the top ten countries are ethnically Arab.  Muslims, like Christians, cannot be confined to one continent or people.  Islam is not a monolithic religion but is, in actuality, fantastically diverse. It may further surprise you to find that “China has more Muslims than Syria; Russia is home to more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined; and Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon.”   

What does all this mean?  It means that many Americans wouldn’t know a Muslim if one dropped on their head.  Like Christians, Muslims are an extraordinarily diverse people who are unified by their religion.  So the next time you think you have identified a Muslim because they looked like an “Arab”—keep in mind that you probably missed a couple dozen who didn’t.     

For a complete look at the Pew Research Center’s Mapping the Muslim World click here:  http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1370/mapping-size-distribution-worlds-muslim-population

Article first published on March 28, 2010

Filed Under: FeaturedHeather AbrahamIslamPodcastViews, News, & Issues

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