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The Distorted Perception of Communities


How many Jews and Muslims do you think live in America?

Do the communities seem (too) large?

How does the make-up of these communities in your city compare to the whole of America and the world?


Dr. Amir Hussain, Sunni Muslim and Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, addressed these questions and others in my recent Bonus podcast episode – Understanding the Muslim American Experience.


While there is a common perception that the Jewish and Muslim communities in America are dominant and threatening, the two groups together account for only about 12 million, less than four percent of the national population. Why does this disconnect matter? When Jews and Muslims are seen as more dominant, more powerful, or more threatening than we are, the image distortion is dangerous and poisons relations with the dominant Christian population.

Jews and Muslims account for only about 12 million, or less than 4%, of the U.S. population.


Being wary and fearful of people who look, behave, or believe differently from us is a natural human reaction, one deeply ingrained from early human history. That said, we are a long way from that time and can manage those fears if we so choose. As Amir and I discussed, education and exposure to those who are different can counteract the natural fear instinct. Whether the learning comes in the form of podcasts, reading, discussion groups, or formal education is immaterial. We each have much to learn and what matters is that we remain curious, humble, and open to new information.

We can manage our fears of people who are different from us.


My podcast conversations continue to be part of my learning. In this episode with Amir, I began by gaining a better and more nuanced sense of the various population numbers. He was a generous teacher. After noting the true size of the Jewish and Muslim communities in America, he shared some of the elements. Although exact numbers are impossible to achieve, he noted estimated counts for sectors of the American Muslim population as follows: 35% South Asian, 25% African American, 35% Middle Eastern, and a small number of whites. Within these numbers, he noted several qualifications and fuzzy areas. More details followed.


What to make of this information? One take-away for me was the distorting effect of visibility. When the local group is large, our perceived size of that population extrapolated to America or the world as a whole can be exaggerated. For instance, Amir commented that because the Jewish population in Los Angeles is large, his students often believe there are 50-100 million Jews in the world, which is multiples higher than the estimated 16 million. The impression of the Muslim population in the U.S. suffers the same misperception. Sometimes this is because of immigration. The percentage of Shia Muslims in the U.S., for example, is about twice that of the world as a whole. These are significant and dangerous misperceptions.


Learning numbers like these is one step in adjusting our sense of scale when thinking about Muslim or other communities. A step farther is gaining a more nuanced idea of who is included in the sub-groups. I was surprised to hear that countries that are included in some of those groups are not as settled as I had thought. Turkey, for one, is sometimes included in the Middle East and sometimes not. We didn’t get into why that is the case, but it is certainly an intriguing question to pursue.


Likewise, the assumptions about who a Muslim is, especially if we are judging by appearances, is another area ripe for misunderstanding. Amir mentioned the Latino and South Asian Muslims, none of which fit the stereotypical image many of us have of a Muslim. Again, having a more informed understanding of the population helps, along with not making assumptions about people we don’t know.


Questions for you:

Are you part of one of these misunderstood communities? What are the misperceptions and biases people have about you? Let me know so we all learn.


On the flip side, perhaps this blog post and Amir’s podcast episode will help break down some assumptions you have about the Muslim (or other) community in America. If so, keep going!



Click here to listen to Dr. Amir Hussain’s Bonus episode.


To keep up-to-date with the project and podcast click here to sign up for the twice-monthly newsletter.


The ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast is available on Apple podcasts, other podcast apps, and through my Talking with God Project website.


Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at or write a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!  Méli


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