President Obama’s assertion that the United States is one of the world’s biggest Muslim countries has sparked debate about the comment’s accuracy and how far the president will extend himself to the Muslim world.
“If you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world,” the president told French television station Canal Plus on Monday, the eve of his five-day, overseas trip with stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the statement is incorrect and using such language is a “dangerous gambit.”
“All politicians pander. Obama is raising it to a global level,” he said. “First of all, it’s false: Even if you take the inflated numbers that Islamic advocacy organizations claim, Muslims are a tiny, tiny minority in the United States.
“Obama should also not fall into the extremists trap of using Muslim as a unitary adjective. There is no more a Muslim world than a Christian world. However, there are lots of different Muslims and Christians in the world and countries. This isn’t to be politically correct, but we shouldn’t concede to adapt the parameters of the Middle Eastern political debate.”
The U.S. government does not count populations by religion, but several unofficial estimates put the Muslim-American population at roughly 5 million, which would rank the U.S. about 35th among 150 countries with Muslim populations.
“I think the statement was really an effort to hold up the Muslin-American nation in which Islam and Democracy are not incompatible, Islam and prosperity are not incompatible,” said Steve Grand, a Brookings fellow and director of the group’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
He also said Muslims in the United States are slightly more educated and have more money than the rest of the population so “the clash does not really fit the reality in the U.S.”
Mr. Grand acknowledged the population number is hard to pin down but said the estimate of 2 to 6 million Muslims in the U.S. is near the number in Jordan.
Jim Phillips, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs, said he was surprised by Mr. Obama’s comment because America only has about 3 to 5 million Muslims.
“And that is far from the largest Muslim country — Indonesia,” he said, “It reminds me of his campaign statement that he had been to 57 states. I think that he needs to cut back on his work schedule and get some rest.”
Mr. Obama’s comments and those by a senior White House adviser earlier this week also re-ignite the debate during Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign about his Muslim roots.
Four days before the Canal Plus interview, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said: “I think the fact is, is that the president himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to — or before he’s been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world — you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father — obviously Muslim Americans a key part of [his home state] Illinois and Chicago.”
Mr. Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, is a Christian whose childhood included a brief time in the Muslim country of Indonesia and whose stepfather and Kenyan father were Muslims. His mother’s grandparents were Protestants and helped raise him in Kansas. But the president has said religion was never a significant part of his upbringing.
In the Canal Plus interview, Mr. Obama also told reporter Laura Haim his stop in Cairo delivers on a promise made during the presidential campaign to “provide a framework, a speech of how I think we can remake relations between the United States and countries in the Muslim world.”
However, he cautioned that one speech would not solve all the Middle East problems so expectations should be modest.
“What I want to do is to create a better dialogue so that the Muslim world understands more effectively how the United States [and] the West think about many of these difficult issues like terrorism, like democracy, [and] to discuss the framework for what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and our outreach to Iran, and also how we view the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Obama said.
The president also said the West must try to learn more about Islam.
“There’s got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples,” he said. “The most important thing I want to tell young people is that, regardless of your faith, those who build as opposed to those who destroy I think leave a lasting legacy, not only for themselves but also for their nations.”
Mr. Rubin also said what is more unfortunate is that Mr. Obama has been arguing that we should not impose our values —freedom, liberty, democracy, tolerance — on the world.
“Rather than see these as universal values, he has embraced cultural relativism,” he said. “The problem with his statement is that he not only now declines to put American values at the forefront of American foreign policy, but he refuses to even identify them. Rather than talk about the United States as a Muslim country, perhaps he should talk about the United States as a country which has thrived because of a separation of church and state and an adherence to a constitution.”