IN EARLY 2010 opponents of a proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, spray-painted NOT WELCOME on a sign announcing the new building. Simple-minded vandalism, perhaps; but their scrawl captured the feelings of an increasingly noisy segment of America’s population. In the months that followed, nasty disputes erupted over planned mosques in Wisconsin, California and New York. Some suggested that Islam did not deserve protection under the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion as well as speech.
Yet these mosque projects and others continue. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 Islam in America has flourished. The number of mosques has nearly doubled over the past decade, rising from 1,209 in 2000 to 2,106 in 2011, according to a new report from a multi-faith coalition.
Several factors explain the building boom, says Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky and the report’s main author. The growing size of America’s Muslim population has created a need for more mosques, partly as a reflection of the religion’s growing diversity. Muslims are also increasingly moving away from the cities, where most mosques are sited. The proportion of mosques in the suburbs has grown from 16% of the total in 2000 to 28% in 2011.
These findings will probably further rouse those who are worried that radical Islam will take root in America. But the report suggests such worries are misplaced. Nearly 90% of mosque leaders say they have seen no increase in radicalism among young Muslims. And most also say that they take a flexible approach to Islam rather than strictly interpreting its texts.
Other findings back up an earlier report from the Pew Research Centre, which showed that most Muslim Americans have assimilated. Nearly all mosque leaders agree that Muslims should be involved in American institutions and should take part in American politics. They even seem unfazed by the scrutiny of a suspicious government (see article). Only a quarter say they believe American society is hostile to Islam, well down from 54% in 2000.
As with other religions in America, the main challenge facing Islam is not radicalism, but secularisation. The good news for mosque leaders is that there is a growing pool of prospective worshippers. The numbers in the report, if accurate, cast doubt on previous estimates, which have put America’s Muslim population at between 1m and 3m. Mr Bagby thinks the number is closer to 7m. Enthusiasts for America’s diversity will be pleased to hear that. Others, unfortunately, will be alarmed.