Why Are Muslim Immigrants Assimilating So Quickly?

10_21_Muslim_Immigants_01
The annual Muslim Day Parade in New York City on September 25. David Bier writes that in 2014, 23 percent of all U.S. residents raised in Muslim households had left their religion. Another estimate placed the share at 32 percent. Two surveys found the number of Iranian-Americans who identify as Muslim dropped from 42 percent to 31 percent from 2008 to 2012. Stephanie Keith/reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

In my column last week, I demonstrated using surveys mostly from Gallup and Pew Research Center that Muslim-Americans are rapidly abandoning beliefs widely held in their native countries and adopting the more liberal social and political beliefs of other Americans.

But what’s even more remarkable about this fact is that this transition has occurred at the same time that Muslim immigration has ramped up. In other words, immigration is not detracting from those changes and may even be contributing to them.

While the number of Muslim immigrants and their children doubled from 2007 to 2015—from 1.4 million to 2.7 million—the native Muslim population fell by more than a third—from about 917,000 to 594,000. This provides evidence that the immigrants themselves are taking part in the recent changes.

10_21_pasted_image_01 Sources: See below.

Sources: Pew 2007, Pew 2011, Pew 2015. Note that Pew 2015 failed to provide the ratio of immigrant to native, so the figure uses Pew 2014. Pew has no surveys before 2007, but the best survey estimate for year 2000 placed the total Muslim population at 1.9 million (Smith 2002).

I’ll just give a couple of examples for which I have data for both 2007 and 2014. Figure 2 compares the rate of acceptance of homosexuality among Muslim immigrants and their children with the rate of acceptance among all Muslims, while also tracking the number of Muslim immigrants in the United States.

Pew did not report the breakdown of acceptance of homosexuality by nativity in 2014, but as Figure 2 shows, their views tracked the changes in those for all Muslims in 2007 and 2011—a 12 percent increase for both.

Figure 2: Percent of U.S. Muslims who find homosexuality “morally acceptable” and number of first- or second-generation Muslims in the United States

10_21_pasted_image_02 Sources: See Figure 1.

Given this departure from the strict reading of the Koran, we would expect that many Muslims in the United States may have adjusted their views on Islam’s scripture.

Pew found in 2007 that 50 percent of U.S. Muslims favored taking a “literal” interpretation of the holy book, while 33 percent opposed doing so. By 2014, the literalists had dropped 8 points, and the non-literalists rose 10 points, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 3: Percent of U.S. Muslims who say that the Koran should not be taken literally and number of first- or second-generation Muslims

10_21_pasted_image_03 Sources: See Figure 1.

Here’s another significant point of equal significance: These changes do not include those who abandoned Islam, and it’s safe to assume that these are the people who are likely to be the most liberal.

Thus, these surveys probably under-represent the level of liberalization among people who were raised Muslim or among immigrants who first arrived in the country as Muslim because they exclude those people who defected from the faith in adulthood or after their arrival in the United States.

This phenomenon is very significant. In 2014, 23 percent of all U.S. residents raised in Muslim households had left their religion, according to Pew. Another estimate placed the share at 32 percent. Two small surveys found that the number of Iranian Americans who identify as Muslim dropped from 42 percent to 31 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Based on Pew’s 2011 survey of Muslims in America, this number may actually be at the high end. Using American Community Survey data, the numbers imply that the actual share is more likely about 22 percent. Estimates of the effect of “Muslim” immigration on the religious or political makeup of the United States would be highly misleading if it ignored this group.

The bottom line is that very large increases in the Muslim population in the United States due to immigration have not stalled assimilation of those immigrants. Rather, they are demonstrating Americans’ incredible capacity to encourage immigrants to adopt their ways.  

David J. Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.