Census Bureau data for 2000 found 1.2 million people who claimed Arab ancestry, nearly double the number counted in 1980.
Leaders of the Arab-American community say the new total is too low, reflecting underreporting.
Although only 23 percent of Arab-Americans are Muslim, according to a 2000 Zogby survey, the census report released yesterday adds fuel to an ongoing debate about the size of the U.S. Muslim population.
In 1992, the American Muslim Council estimated there were more than 5 million followers of Islam in the country, of whom 12 percent were Arabs. Other Arab and Muslim groups say the number is closer to 6 million Muslims, a population that would make them more numerous than Jews.
“That’s way too high. I say it’s more like 3 or 4 million [Muslims],” said Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan group that studies the impact of immigration.
He and others stressed that Arabs do not account for most Muslims in this country. Forty-two percent of Arabs are Catholic, 23 percent Orthodox Christian and 12 percent Protestant, according to the Zogby survey.
In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released by the City University of New York, estimated the total number of Muslims in America to be no higher than 2.8 million — or 1 percent of the population and roughly half as large as the Jewish population.
According to the ARIS report, recent Arab immigrants from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are disproportionately Christians — and some are Jews.
Mr. Camarota cited another poll by the University of Michigan, called the General Social Survey, that he says “finds that less than 1 percent of Americans consider themselves Muslims.”
“By law, the Census Bureau doesn’t ask questions about religion,” said Ruth Osborne, a bureau spokeswoman.
Both Mr. Camarota and Dan Stein, head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), predict Arabs will have a significant effect on future U.S. foreign policy, especially as it relates to Israel, as a result of their growing numbers.
Mr. Camarota says he foresees continued strong population growth of people of Arab lineage in the United States unless there is a change in U.S. immigration policy.
He says this growth has the potential to contribute to national security problems, “since it could make it more difficult to track terrorists, since it gives them a much larger population to blend into.”
The 12-page federal brief, titled “The Arab Population in 2000,” released yesterday is the first report the Census Bureau has ever issued on the population of those with Arab ancestry living on American soil.
It showed that the U.S. population claiming Arab ancestry climbed from 610,000 in 1980 to 860,000 in 1990 to 1.2 million in the 2000 count.
“Whether a population is 1 million or 6 million, it can have a large influence on foreign policy” if it’s “well-organized and focused,” said Mr. Stein, of FAIR.
For purposes of the census analysis, most people with ancestors originally from Arab-speaking countries of the world were classified as Arabs. Included were those who reported Arab, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, North African, Palestinian or Syrian ancestry, the Census Bureau said.
“Those of Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian descent accounted for three-fifths of the Arab population [in the United States in 2000],” Miss Osborne said, adding: “About half of that population is concentrated in five states: California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and New York.”
The Arab population grew by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2000 in several states, including Virginia.
The census report identified Arlington as having the seventh-largest population of Arabs among places with a population of 100,000 or above. In Arlington, Arabs represent nearly 1.8 percent of the total population.
Data in the report are based on responses from a sample of households who received the census long form in 2000. Nationally, about one-sixth of households were included in the sample.
Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab-American Institute Foundation, says she has been working with the Census Bureau for 15 years to “improve data collection and presentation” of the Arab population in this country.
“We recognize serious constraints. We believe there is underreporting by a factor of three,” she said. That would mean, according to her estimate, the Arab population in America is about 3.6 million.
As evidence, Ms. Samhan cited a Zogby survey of four counties in Michigan. That survey, she said, identified 200,000 Arabs, “compared to 60,000 identified by the Census Bureau.”
Ms. Samhan attributes underreporting to Arab peoples’ uncertainty about the purpose of the census and the distrust some have of government; language difficulties; and “race confusion among Arab-Americans” filling out the long form, since questions about ancestry were separate from race questions on the form.
As for the population of Muslims in the United States, Ms. Samhan said, “There’s probably around 5 million, of which 20 percent are Arabs.”
Approximately 40 percent of Muslims in this country, she said, are American blacks and another 30 percent hail from countries in South Asia including India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
A State Department report in 2001 concluded that three groups fairly evenly make up the bulk of the U.S. Muslim population: South Asians (from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan); U.S.-born blacks; and Arab-Americans.
Others are from various African nations, Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina and the Philippines.