(CNSNews.com) – Ten U.S. Islamic organizations have formed a new umbrella group to serve as a “representative voice” for American Muslims, and one of their first tasks will be to carry out a census of the community.
Other focus areas for the new U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), according to speakers at the body’s launch in Washington on Wednesday, include enhancing Muslim political engagement and participation in forthcoming elections, civil rights issues, combating “Islamophobia” and having an impact on U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Participating organizations include high-profile groups that have been dogged by controversy, such as the Muslim American Society (MAS), founded by Muslim Brotherhood members, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which was named by the Justice Department in 2007 as “unindicted co-conspirators” in its case against the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, subsequently found guilty of raising money for Hamas.
“The new national council’s first priority will be to build on Muslim citizenship rights by conducting a census of American Muslims to create a database that will be used to enhance civic and political participation in upcoming elections,” USCMO said in a statement.
CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad, a participant at the launch, said that Muslim organizations in 2011 had come up with a “guesstimate” of seven to eight million Muslims in the United States.
“Opponents of the Muslim community shot down the number for political reasons, to two-and-a-half, two million, and sometimes people even said half a million,” he said.
The aim of the census project would be to determine a clear idea of the number and distribution of American Muslims, by 2016.
“Muslim voters can be swing voters in key elections, especially in 2016, and we are aiming at that election to bring a more visible participation from the Muslim community,” Awad said.
Another participant, Osama Abu Irshaid of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), said Muslims “are a growing demographic, numbering in the millions, and it is time to organize ourselves so that we can fully participate productively and efficiently in the political process.”
Abu Irshaid said American Muslims’ purchasing power exceeds $170 billion, “but we want to be more than consumers in this country.”
“We want to fully participate and engage in the civic process. We also want to ward off the evils of bigotry and Islamophobia and begin to define ourselves instead of allowing others – who don’t understand us, who fear us and even hate us – tell us how we should live and worship in this country.”
Abu Irshaid said bringing American Muslims into the political process “can only enrich American foreign policy and enrich our domestic policy as well.”
One prominent anti-Islamist Muslim described the move as “a circling of the wagons” by the nation’s top Islamist organizations.“If they were going to start an American Islamist political party those would be the founders,” the president of the non-profit American Islamic Forum for Democracy, M. Zuhdi Jasser, said early Thursday.
The USCMO launch was a sign that Islamists were “feeling the heat,” Jasser said.
“America is both getting tuned in to their anti-American agenda as well as also realizing that far more diverse anti-Islamist American Muslim groups – like our American Islamic Leadership Coalition – can provide alternative and authentic Muslim voices beyond the Islamists.”
Although a woman emceed the event, no women were visible among the leaders of the organizations at the launch. USCMO Secretary-General Oussama Jammal said the new body’s stated priorities include “empowering women by developing and supporting their leadership skills, seeking appointment of Muslim women to leadership positions, and also involving women at all levels of our community organizations and expressions.”
The founding members of the new umbrella group are The Mosque Cares, Muslim American Society, American Muslims for Palestine, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim Legal Fund of America, Muslim Alliance in North America, Muslim Ummah of North America, American Muslim Alliance and the Mosque Foundation of Chicago.
How many Muslims?
The size of the Muslim American community has been a point of contention. The U.S. Census Bureau does not collect religious data, but the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by scholars at Trinity College, found the number of American adults self-identifying as Muslims to be 1.35 million, up from 1.1 million in 2001.
In 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number of Muslims in the U.S. at 2.77 million.
In his “address to the Muslim world” in Cairo the previous year, however, President Obama made reference to “nearly seven million American Muslims in our country” – drawing applause for doing so from an American Muslim leader at the time.
The seven million figure has been attributed to a CAIR-sponsored 2001 survey of leaders from a representative sample of mosques, which concluded that two million Muslims were associated with a mosque (with “association” defined as at least attending Eid, the major Islamic holiday at the end of Ramadan).
Based on that number, the survey authors concluded that “estimates of a total Muslim population of 6-7 million in America seem reasonable.”
The Islamic Society of North America states that there are “close to seven million Muslims” in the U.S.