Muslim immigrants

By the early twenty-first century, approximately two million Muslim immigrants were living in the United States. The Muslim immigrant community is diverse, encompassing followers of different Islamic sects and people from virtually all regions of the world. In the face of increasing American hostility, especially since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, members of this diverse immigrant community have begun to recognize their commonalities and mobilize for their rights.

Common data collection methods make it difficult to provide concise demographic information about the Muslim immigrant community in the United States. While the U.S. Census Bureau reported that approximately 0.6 percent of all people living in United States during the early twenty-first century were Muslims, that figure was derived from a survey of a representative population sample. The Census, U.S.;and religious affiliations[religious affiliations]Census Bureau does not collect information on individual respondents’ religions in the census itself and therefore cannot provide overall population numbers based on religious affiliation.Muslim immigrantsMuslim immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Muslim immigrants[03690][cat]SOUTH AND SOUTHWEST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Muslim immigrants[03690][cat]RELIGION;Muslim immigrants[03690]

Estimates of the numbers of Muslims in the United States produced by other organizations usually range between 5 and 8 million individuals, and common consensus places the number at approximately 6 million. Since immigrants are estimated to constitute about one-third of the Muslims in the United States, the number of people who are both Muslims and immigrants is approximately 2 million. This figure is consistent with the numbers of immigrants who have come to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries, after adjusting for the proportions of non-Muslims in those countries.

Earliest Muslim Immigrants

Some of the earliest Muslim immigrants to come to what is now the United States were Slave trade;Muslim slavesslaves who traveled with Spanish explorers during the sixteenth century. Some of the African slaves brought to British colonies during the seventeenth century were also slaves. Scholars have estimates that as many as 10 to 20 percent of all slaves imported to the United States practiced some forms of Islam in their homelands. Estimates on the size of this population range in number from as few as 40,000 Muslim slaves in the United States to 3 million Muslim slaves in all the Americas.

One of the most comprehensive records of the experiences of these early Muslim immigrants is the autobiography of Omar ibn SayyidOmar ibn Sayyid, who was brought to North Carolina from West Africa as a slave during the late nineteenth century. Omar ibn Sayyid was literate in Arabic; in 1831, he wrote a detailed account of his experiences. Slaveholders valued Muslim slaves for their literacy skills, but their religious practices were usually discouraged. Consequently, Islamic practices were not passed along to later generations of slaves. However, Islamic practices did survive in a few small and isolated communities. During the early twentieth century, oral historians found evidence of Muslim cultural and religious influences in African Americans;and Islam[Islam]African American communities living on islands off the coast of Georgia;slavery inGeorgia.

The first documented Muslim immigrants to come to the United States voluntarily came during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the 1880’s thousands of Muslims immigrated from the Ottoman EmpireOttoman Empire, mainly from parts of what are now the independent countries of Syrian immigrantsSyria and Lebanese immigrantsLebanon. Between 1890 and 1910, several hundred South Asian immigrants, who included some Muslims, came to the United States to work on railroads and in lumber mills in the American West. The early midwestern auto industry also had many Arab immigrant employees, many of whom were Muslims. Some of the first social and religious Muslim immigrant institutions in the United States were established by these people.

Muslim immigrants praying at the Karbalaa Islamic Center in Dearborn, Michigan, in early 2003. The center provides a variety of services to help new immigrants adjust to life in the United States.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Changes in U.S. immigration laws that restricted the entry of non-Europeans and established a system of national origins quotas slowed down the rate of Muslim immigration to the United States during the early to mid-twentieth century. From the 1920’s to the 1950’s, most Muslim immigrants arriving in the United States came from eastern European regions. By the time the national origins quota system was abolished by the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, only between 100,000 and 150,000 Muslims were living in the United States.

Post-1965 Immigration

The 1965 immigration law replaced national origin quotas and with new criteria for admitting immigrants based on family relationships, work skills, and refugee status. After this law went into effect, Muslims began immigrating to the United States from countries all over the world. Research conducted by the Center for Immigration StudiesCenter for Immigration Studies suggests that the largest numbers of Muslim immigrants immediately after 1965 came from South Asian countries, particularly Pakistani immigrantsPakistan, Bangladeshi immigrantsBangladesh, and Asian Indian immigrantsIndia. Immigrants from these former British colonies had the advantage of having learned English in school and were consequently highly competitive applicants for immigration based on their skills needed to fill American jobs. Large numbers of Muslims also came to the United States from the Middle East and Central Asia during this time.

During the late 1980’s and 1990’s. increasing Refugees;Muslimsnumbers of Muslims came to the United States as refugees. Some were fleeing ethnic conflicts in Africa; others were escaping from religious persecution in South Asia and the Middle East. Many were refugees who had been displaced by military conflicts in Iraqi immigrants;refugeesIraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and the successor states to Yugoslavia.

Post-9/11 Issues

Negative Stereotyping, ethnic;Muslimsstereotypes of Muslims and Muslim immigrants have been common in the United States since the colonial era. International events, particularly wars and other conflicts, have clearly contributed to negative American views of Muslims. Since the early 1970’s, airplane hijackings and terrorist actions have strengthened negative public perceptions of Muslims, especially when such actions have directly affected Americans, such as the late 1970’s Iranian hostage crisis. However, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants]Muslim extremist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 (“9/11”) elevated negative American views of Muslims to a new level and inaugurated a new era of discrimination and violence directed against Muslims in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual survey of Hate crimeshate crimes for 2001 recorded a dramatic increase in crimes against Muslims: from 28 reported incidents directed against Muslims in 2000 to 481 in 2001–a seventeen fold increase.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has also seen the involvement of the United States in seemingly intractable wars in the predominantly Muslim countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. According to post-9/11 public opinion polls conducted by both the Pew Research Center and the Council on American-Islamic RelationsCouncil on American-Islamic Relations, a majority of Americans have come to associate Islam with violence. Most Christian Americans also do not recognize commonalities between their own religious beliefs and those held by Muslims. Meanwhile, hate crimes directed against Muslims have continued to rise. According to data collected by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the number of assaults and incidents of discrimination against Muslims in the United States rose from 1,019 documented cases in 2003 to 1,972 cases in 2005.

Both immigrant and nonimmigrant Muslims have been victims of hate crimes and discrimination since 9/11, but immigrants have been more frequently targeted. Significantly, many persons who have committed hate crimes seem to believe that all Muslims in the United States are immigrants, as many of their hate crimes are accompanied by cries of “Go Home.”

In addition to the threat of Hate crimeshate crimes faced by Muslim immigrants, there are numerous allegations of post-9/11 legal discrimination against this community. The [a]Patriot Act of 2001;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants]Patriot Act of 2001 required many immigrants from Muslim-majority countries to register with the federal government, and it enacted new restrictions on travel by individuals from those countries. By 2003, fewer green cards and visas were being issued to people in Muslim-majority countries, particularly people from Pakistani immigrantsPakistan, Moroccan immigrantsMorocco, and Iranian immigrantsIran. Muslim immigrants generally have faced increased problems traveling as they report being profiled for more rigorous security checks than other passengers in airports.

Although there is little demographic data about the impact that these crimes and legal discrimination have had on the number of Muslim immigrants in the United States, anecdotal evidence suggests that many Return migration;MuslimsMuslim immigrants have chosen to return to their countries of origin or to move on to other countries, such as Canada;Muslim immigrantsCanada, rather than remain in the hostile social and political climate of the United States. At the same time, however, many of the Muslims who have remained in the United States have begun to organize to educate the American public about Islam and Muslim people, and they have also worked to educate members of their own communities about their legal rights in the United States.

U.S. Civil Society and Political Life

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, more than 1.5 billion Muslims lived in countries around the world, and forty-seven different nations had populations that were more than 50 percent Muslim. Moreover, several large countries in which Muslims accounted for much smaller percentages of total populations nevertheless had large numbers of Muslims, including India, Russia, and China. Indeed, India had the third-largest Muslim population in the world, even though its 160,945,000 Muslims accounted for only 13.4 percent of its total population.

Although Muslim immigrants have come to the United States from a wide variety of countries and cultural backgrounds, Muslims living in the United States have been able to organize around common social and religious interests. The first national Muslim conference was held in Iowa in 1952. This conference was attended by only 400 Muslims from the United States and Canada, but it marked the inception of the International Muslim SocietyInternational Muslim Society. At a later conference in 1954, American Muslims, including a sizable number of immigrants, formed the Federation of Islamic Associations of the United States and CanadaFederation of Islamic Associations of the United States and Canada (FIA). The primary organizational goal of FIA was to address religious and cultural issues in the United States. However, members of this organization also worked as an advocacy group for the U.S. Muslim community. The FIA also provided a forum in which Muslim immigrants could come together to develop a sense of shared identity across cultural boundaries. However, although these organizations fulfilled an important role in the Muslim community, they always had small memberships. Indeed, as late as the 1980’s and 1990’s,
Muslim Americans appear to have had fewer political organizations than other ethnic and religious groups of similar sizes.

After September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants]9/11, Muslim immigrants and other Muslims in the United States began to participate more actively in civil organizations that would represent their concerns and work as advocates for their community. Education and advocacy groups were formed to oppose the backlash against Muslims living in the United States. According to the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections, a number of grassroots organizations worked to register Muslim voters, educate Muslim immigrants about their rights, and lobby against federal policies that were harmful to Muslim immigrants. Islamic centers have expanded their social programs to offer English classes and free legal assistance to Muslim immigrants. Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic RelationsCouncil on American-Islamic Relations have collected data on hate crimes against Muslims, offered advice on promoting community safety, and increased outreach work to address negative stereotypes about Muslims and Muslim immigrants in the United States.Muslim immigrants

Further Reading

  • Curtis, Edward E., IV, ed. The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Comprehensive collection of primary sources and essays about Muslims and Islam in the United States. Covers diverse viewpoints within the Muslim community and includes reflections on Muslim experiences in post-9/11 America.
  • D’Alisera, JoAnn. An Imagined Geography: Sierra Leonean Muslims in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Study of attempts by Sierra Leonean Muslims to retain their religion, customs, and ethnic identity in the United States. Sierra Leone is a small West African country with a 71.3-percent Muslim population.
  • Ewing, Katherine Pratte, ed. Being and Belonging: Muslims in the United States Since 9/11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Eight ethnographic essays exploring how issues of identity and assimilation have been addressed in contemporary Arab Christian and Muslim communities in the United States.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, ed. The Muslims of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Collection of essays about Muslim communities in both the United States and Canada, written by both non-Muslim and Muslim authors. Most focus on Muslim American institutions, and many discuss the role that American foreign policy has played in the lives of Muslim immigrants.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. New Faiths, Old Fears: Muslims and Other Asian Immigrants in American Religious Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Compares religious backgrounds of Asian immigrants to examine what role they play in the integration of Asian immigrants into American religious life, with a particular focus on Muslims from Asia.
  • Mohammad-Arif, Amminah. Salaam America: South Asian Muslims in New York. New York: Anthem Press, 2002. Ethnographic study of South Asian Muslims living in New York. Provides a strong historical background and pays particular attention to the impact of 9/11 on this community.
  • Rajagopalan, Kavitha. Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Stories of three different Muslim immigrant families, from Palestine, Iraq, and Bangladesh, that immigrated to England, Germany, and the United States.
  • Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001. Fascinating source of information on portrayals of Arabs and other Muslims in more than eight hundred alphabetically arranged films, with special attention given to scenes in which negative stereotyping occurs.

Arab immigrants

Asian immigrants

Indonesian immigrants

Iranian immigrants

9/11 and U.S. immigration policy

Pakistani immigrants

Religion as a push-pull factor

Religions of immigrants


Turkish immigrants