A new report published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), titled The American Mosque 2020, offers a glimpse into the state of American Islam today. Or at least it claims to.
Genuinely important questions posed by the ISPU about the changing demographics and ideas within American Islam are sullied by the investigators’ use of Islamist middlemen to procure respondents, other questionable methodological choices, and the deeply curious decision to exclude entire communities of American Muslims from the survey.
The ISPU failed to respond to questions about its approach, perhaps prompting a critical observer to wonder about its agenda. Indeed, many groups with a clear Islamist association were closely involved with the project. Partners and sponsors included some of America’s most prominent Islamist groups, such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the ICNA Council for Social Justice, and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and its offshoots.
ISNA, IIIT, and CAIR have long histories as key radical institutions—each originally established by activists from the Egypt’s Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood)—and all of which have at one point been accused of terror finance ties, and frequently criticized by Muslim reformists for their extremist ties. ICNA, meanwhile, is the North American branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, a violent South Asian Islamist movement. In 2017, the Middle East Forum caught one of ICNA’s subsidiaries partnering with designated Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But despite all this, the ISPU’s findings are still interesting to contemplate. At the very least, the survey illustrates not just Islamist concerns but also the picture of American Islam that Islamist and Islamist-associated groups wish to paint.
Counting American Islam
The ISPU’s 2020 mosque survey identified 2,769 mosques in the United States. Based on the previous survey’s count of 2106 mosques in 2010, ISPU claims a 31 percent increase, citing “immigration and birth rate” as the reason. South Asian mosques make up the plurality of American mosques. Even Shia mosques—predominantly thought of as Iranian or Lebanese in American media—reported that a plurality—some 37 percent—of Shia congregants in America were South Asian. Across the board, it seems, South Asian Muslims have the numbers.
The authors estimate 4 million Muslims attend mosques in the United States for “at least Eid prayer.”
However, the ISPU reports that the number of new converts in mosques has “declined dramatically” since 2010. It explicitly notes a 33 percent decrease in the number of African American Muslim congregants and a 43 percent decrease in the number of African American mosques. The authors warn that “mosques are not attracting a significant percentage of Generation Z and young Millennials,” noting that only 29 percent of mosque attendees are between 18 and 34, despite 54 percent of American Muslims being in that age bracket.
More interestingly, the ISPU notes that half of mosques have a full-time paid imam. Of these paid imams, “22% were born in America which is an increase from 15% in 2010. The inevitable evolution to the preference of hiring American-born imams is slowly manifesting.” The authors note that only 6 percent of these imams, however, “received their Islamic degree… from an American institution, and no one seminary, university or institute is predominant in granting these degrees.” They add, “The absence of a leading US-based Islamic seminary is an impediment for increasing the number of American-born imams.”
These findings also tally with the Middle East Forum’s own study of Islamic seminaries in the United States. However, of the 30 institutions we have previously identified and researched, excluding Shia seminaries, the majority were established by clerics or activists from Salafi, Deobandi, or Muslim Brotherhood circles. In other words, Islamists remain firmly in control of training the next generation of American imams, but appear mostly in competition with each other for funds and students, unable to collaborate (despite a few outlier efforts).
But while seminaries appear politically and theologically distinct, the ISPU reports that many mosques, now more than ever, no longer teach just one interpretation of Islamic law, and instead attract a wide array of Muslims who subscribe to different schools of jurisprudence. The ISPU authors suggest that the growing importance of South Asian mosques are driving this change and note with approval that 55 percent of mosques reportedly look to “modern circumstances” in their interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah, while only 4 percent follow a particular “madhhab” (school of jurisprudence), and just 1 percent follow the “Salafi” way.
The Salafi percentage seems particularly unlikely, given the huge number of Salafi-trained imams operating in the United States, as well as the many decades of Wahhabi influence foisted upon American Islam up until around 2013. In fact, it seems likely the ISPU is referring only to a very distinct, overt form of explicit Salafism that represents a small proportion of the total Salafi presence amid the diverse array of Salafi strains. Notably, many American Salafis do not publicly identify as Salafi despite embracing Salafi ideas. One leading example is Yasir Qadhi, perhaps one of the best-known imams in America, who rejects the organized Salafi movement but “firmly believes” in Salafi “concepts” and “methodology.”
It is a curious decision to introduce the problem of radical religious revivalism and then only explore it so far as to dismiss it. In addition, why mention Salafis but not attempt to procure data on other hardline sects, such as the Deobandis—the violence-prone South Asian movement from which the Taliban emerged—whose clerics and missionaries run hundreds of mosques and seminaries across North America? Despite a plurality of South Asian Muslims in America, Islamist groups have long kept public discourse firmly focused on Middle Eastern Islam.
The second part of the survey offers a hopeful view of American Islam and the putative growing moderation of its leaders and congregants. Just under half of “mosque leaders” disagreed with the statement that “America is an immoral society.” Seventy-six percent of mosques claimed to have participated in “interfaith activities” in the past 12 months. And the ISPU reports evidence of declining misogyny against Muslim women in the mosques, although it notes that the percentage of mosques that keep women hidden behind a divider remains unchanged since 2010.
The ISPU focuses heavily on growing political involvement, reporting that only 2 percent of “mosque leaders” oppose involvement with “American civic institutions.” This is, on the face of it, welcome and a far cry from the parochialism of many quietist or militant Salafi-dominated mosques in the 1990s, which mostly rejected all involvement with Western political processes.
However, it is vital to remember that Western Islamism has many components, often working in competition. It has increasingly been the habit of the more flexible, lawful extremists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a growing contingent of “modernist” Salafis, to get involved with politics—all to advance Islamist interests (often under a progressivist guise).
Over the past few years, there have been considerable efforts by these besuited Islamists to establish political action committees (PACs), donor clubs, and candidate training organizations, as well as to run candidates for office and organize endless voter outreach events in mosques and other Islamic institutions around the country. These efforts are perhaps reflected in the ISPU’s data. Over half of mosques have organized a voter registration drive. Similarly, half have hosted a visit by a politician. Of course, it is not a field entirely captured by the Islamists. Many moderate Muslim candidates have run for, or been appointed to, public office—sometimes to the fury of the ISPU’s Islamist partners.
Distorting American Islam
Led by Ihsan Bagby, a leading American Muslim academic, the committee behind the ISPU survey included a mix of researchers and Islamist activists, including Dalia Mogahed, the ISPU’s director of research, and Zahid Bukhari, a Jamaat-e-Islami activist and the director of the radical ICNA Council for Social Justice.
The survey—the third of its kind (previous surveys were conducted in 2000 and 2010)—was conducted in collaboration with the Hartford Seminary, a prominent theological college which has, at times, pursued unpleasant ties to both Islamists and even institutions controlled by the Assad regime.
Both Bagby and the Hartford Seminary are well-respected. So how was all this data gathered? Can we trust it?
In its effort to understand the reported 2,769 mosques in the United States, the ISPU mailed out an initial survey to a list of 2,948 institutions. This, however, only generated 164 responses. Consequently, in search of a better sample, researchers saw fit to conduct extensive telephone interviews over 11 months, producing another 470 responses.
So, it appears that 75 percent of respondents were specifically chosen by the researchers. Indeed, the ISPU offers “special thanks” to Intuitive Solutions under Tayyab Yunus as well as the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California for “supplying several excellent interviewers,” “identifying mosque leaders and supplying interviewers.”
Tayyab Yunus—who runs two organizations involved with the ISPU’s survey—is a former ISNA official as well as a former activist for the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a leading proxy for the violent South Asian movement Jamaat-e-Islami. In 2000, Yunus reportedly gave a speech bemoaning that Muslim parents who would not “send your sons to jihad, to Chechnya.” He allegedly added, “How many of you can actually say that you want to send your youth to fight in Jihad or send them to… to these Islamic institutions to become educated? … I honestly believe in my heart that this is the time, right now is the time.”
The Islamic Shura Council, meanwhile, comes from similar Islamist circles and has a history of giving platforms to hate preachers, promoting conspiracy theories, and even employing extremists who advocate ethnic cleansing.
Thus, the ISPU, an Islamist-managed research institution, established a survey, in partnership with Islamist partners and sponsors, to report the behaviors, beliefs and trends of American mosques, relying on interviews arranged by leading Islamist operatives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this Islamist influence, the survey explicitly excluded moderate Muslim sects often despised by Islamists, such as the Ahmadiyyah, Ismailis, and several American Black Muslim sects—all of which the ISPU referred to as “outside of the Sunni and Shi’ite American Muslim community.”
Ahmadiyyah have long been despised by Islamists, including in the West. Frequently slaughtered, imprisoned, and tortured in Pakistan, Ahmadis are often harassed and sometimes even murdered in Western countries by violent Islamists, simply because of their faith.
Meanwhile, the decision to refer to Ismailis as outside the fold of Shia Islam is particularly interesting, given that Ismailis have long self-identified as Shi’ites, and few have previously challenged that claim. Indeed, ISPU’s current “briefing book for policymakers” explicitly refers to Ismailis as Shia; and a 2010 ISPU publication warns that, in Saudi Arabia, “members of Ismailism, a Shi’ite sect, often face apostasy and blasphemy charges.”
But apparently, today, these Muslim sects are not Muslim enough. I wrote to the ISPU, asking them about their decision to exclude various Muslim sects from their survey of American Islam, along with several other questions about their methodology. They did not respond.
Where Shia Muslims are mentioned in the ISPU’s survey, it seems clear, then, that the authors are referring solely to members of the Twelver Shia sect—which, unlike the Ismailis, has been particularly prone to Islamist influence over the past 40 years.
That the ISPU included two sections on American Shi’ites at all is perhaps welcome for a Sunni institution. Curiously, however, the ISPU reports only 6 percent of all its survey respondents were Shia—presumably a paltry 38 mosques or so, which is a poor representation of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Shia Muslims living in the United States. The ISPU does repeatedly concede that it is too small a sample size, but then offers conclusions from the data notwithstanding.
The survey completely ignores other Islamic movements and sects. Despite the considerable number of Barelvi and Deobandi Muslims in the United States, at no point is either movement mentioned. Similarly, Sufi orders, specific Turkish networks, far-Eastern, African, and Central Asian Islamic sects and movements are not addressed. It seems especially unusual to name and exclude a small number of certain Islamic sects from a survey, while then failing to delineate the remaining sample, aside from a passing mention of the putative irrelevance of the Salafis.
Finally, it is worth noting that the ISPU’s reliance on telephone interviews generates other biases. Mosques with an active staff, able to man phone lines and respond to messages, tend to be the bigger institutions. And the ISPU, in fact, notes that “only a handful of very large mosques have paid staff to manage the mosque; therefore, the vast majority of mosques (76%) are managed entirely by volunteers.”
Moreover, these bigger institutions with paid staff (based on the Middle East Forum’s own studies of mosques across the United States) tend more often to demonstrate some degree of Islamist influence—a string often attached to better funding.
It seems highly likely, therefore, that smaller mosques—often moderate and usually representing more distinct communities (perhaps mosques for Black Americans or specific ethnic groups, or just tiny prayer halls with an occasional visiting imam and no particular political and theological leaning)—would have been disproportionately excluded from the ISPU’s data. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the ISPU does not publish its raw data, or attempt to offer a full ethnic, theological, or jurisprudence-based breakdown of its respondents, thus preventing readers from better gauging the representative gamut of the ISPU sample.
A questioning observer might wonder if the ISPU let its survey homogenize American Islam, both Sunni and Shia, in order to justify its questionable methodology and small sample sizes as representative of general Muslim trends. This would serve Islamist interests in several ways. Not only must policymakers continue to rely on Islamist-led data collection to understand American Islam, but Islamists use this data to deny the diversity of Western Islam, feeding assurances that they speak on behalf of all Muslims.
The problem could, of course, have partly been with the respondents. In endless pursuit of a united ummah—a key theme for many strains of Sunni Islam—both Islamist and non-Islamist Muslims have a long history of underplaying the issue of internal division. Merely acknowledging the extraordinary diversity of Sunni and Shia Islam does tend, somewhat, to undermine the pursuit of uniformity.
At the very least, the US Mosque Survey 2020 gives us a glimpse into Islamist-influenced thinking about the future of American Islam. Despite the questionable methodology, and the ISPU’s attempts to exclude entire Muslim communities, the data still plainly shows that the radicals are not the only voice within American Islam; there is a good chance that its future belongs to the moderates and reformists.