The suburbanization of Islam in America

A new study of mosques in the United States highlights the locations of the surveyed respondents:

The location of mosques in terms of the urban-suburban-town parameters are changing significantly. Mosques in downtown areas and in town/small city locations are decreasing. In 2010, 20% of mosques were in towns/small cities, but in 2020 that percentage is down to 6%. One of the reasons for this decline might be linked to the dynamic that the children of mosque participants are moving away to seek education and better jobs. Many town and small city mosques were established by doctors from overseas who were incentivized in past decades to set up practices in underserved locations. These doctors are now retiring, and mosque attendance is dwindling. The decrease in downtown mosques is most likely tied to the decline of African American mosques and the general move of immigrant mosques to the suburbs.

Mosques are moving and being established in suburbs. Mosques in older suburbs went from 21% in 2010 to 33% in 2020. Mosques in new suburbs went from 7% in 2010 to 15% in 2020. The age-old pattern of immigrants achieving financial success and moving away from cities seems to be repeating itself in the American Muslim community.

If I am reading these categories correctly, the percent of mosques in the American suburbs is close to the percent of Americans overall who live in the suburbs (just over 50%).

But, perhaps more interesting, is the change from 2010 to 2020. Mosques became more suburban over this time frame. The explanation with Figure 4 gives reasons for this: specific migration patterns and general migration patterns in American life with immigrants moving from cities to suburbs over time (known as spatial assimilation). It would be interesting to see if the established research in recent decades on segmented assimilation – or other kinds of assimilation according to scholars – has more to say about different groups of Muslims who may or may not follow these general patterns.

For more on this, I recommend the 2018 book Suburban Islam which examines the experience of a Muslim institution in the suburbs of Chicago. Similarly, the 2015 book Religion & Community in the New Urban America considers congregations in a number of religious traditions in the Chicago region (city and suburbs).

Data on Chicago area mosques through 2010

In 2010, Paul Numrich published data on the 91 mosques in the Chicago region as part of the Pluralism Project at Harvard:

Before 1960, only five mosques could be found in metropolitan Chicago, all within the city limits. From research conducted in the late 1990s, I estimated that there were 67 mosques in the six-county region (cf. Numrich 2004). In a 2010 research project, I verified the locations of the 91 mosques shown on the accompanying map. This essay describes my research methods and findings for the 2010 project and discusses some implications of Islam’s growing institutional presence on Chicago’s (and America’s) religious landscape…

53% of the mosques (48 of 91) are located in the city of Chicago, 47% (43 of 91) in the suburbs. Notable clustering of mosques can be found on the city’s north and south sides (due to residential patterns of immigrants and African Americans, respectively) and in suburban Cook and DuPage Counties, the latter one of the wealthiest counties in the nation…

77% of the mosques (70 of 91) have adapted their facilities for use as a mosque. These include several former Christian churches, such as Islamic Community Center of Illinois on Chicago’s north side (see photo on map, courtesy author). Two mosques meet in functioning churches, including Batavia Islamic Center in the western suburbs (see map), which is featured in my book, The Faith Next Door (Numrich 2009: chapter 4)…

Nearly two-thirds of the mosques (58 of 91) have some exterior indication of their Islamic identity that would be recognizable to the average American passerby, such as domes, minarets, Islamic symbols, or English signage. All but two of the 21 newly built mosques have such recognizable Islamic markers, such as Masjid Al-Faatir on Chicago’s south side with its impressive dome and minarets (see photo on map, courtesy Frederick J. Nachman).

As Numrich notes, the number and locations of mosques is fluid and thus might have changed by 2015. Still, there is good data here (involving driving more than 2,400 miles to check out the locations) and the page includes a Google map with all the locations.

Come to think about it, I haven’t seen many stories recently about new mosques or communities objecting to proposals for mosques. Back in the early 2010s, this was a hot topic: see earlier posts here, here, and here. But, given the number of mosques within the Chicago region as well as some of the reaction to these high profile cases, it seems as though this is now normal. Even Wheaton, the “Protestant Vatican,” saw the opening of a mosque in late 2013.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

Antar also said Islamic Center of Wheaton leaders are looking forward to getting to know other religious institutions in the area.

I don’t know how those conversations with other religious institutions are going but it would have been hard for Wheaton residents decades ago to imagine seeing a mosque within city limits.

New developments tower over Mecca

Several new developments in Mecca threaten to dwarf the holy sites:

Shooting 26 searchlights 10km into the skies, and blaring its call to prayer 7km across the valley, the Abraj al-Bait is also the world’s second tallest building. Encrusted with mosaics and inlaid with gold, it is the most visible (and audible) sign of the frenzied building boom that has taken hold of Saudi Arabia’s holy city over the last 10 years. “It is truly indescribable,” says Sami Angawi, architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina, few of which now remain. In particular, the house of the prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson’s house was flattened by the King’s palace. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Angawi…

Along the western flank of the city are the first towers of the Jabal Omar development, a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – sitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall. The line of blocks, which will climb to heights of up to 200 metres and terminate in a monumental gateway building, share the clocktower’s Islamic-lite language: a cliched dressing of pointed arches and filigree grillwork plastered over generic concrete shells…

Another development of repetitive slabs, echoing Jabal Omar’s toast-rack urbanism, is slated for the northern side of the Grand Mosque, at al-Shamiya, while a $10bn plan to provide an extra 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls there is almost complete. Standing like a gigantic triangular slice of wedding cake, this building will accommodate 1.2m more worshippers each year, but it has come at a price…

The Kaaba is the holy black cube in the centre of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims walk; proximity to it has become the ultimate currency, allowing hotel suites with the best views to charge $7,000 per night during peak seasons. This unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, has spawned a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks. It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.

The contrast seems stark: a holy site versus ultra-modern development. Is this growth machine development, meaning development primarily about generating profits from pilgrims, run amok? That this is emerging in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be too surprising. Oil money has to be spent somewhere. Plus, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been getting a lot of attention in recent years for their massive developments and I imagine Saudi Arabia would like to match some of that. Yet, Dubai and Abu Dhabi aren’t also known for being major religious sites.

Also, whenever I see stories like this, I am reminded of the amazing pace of development in some cities (particularly in China and oil-rich Middle East nations) around the world: from populated, primarily low-rise cities to massive, tall, expensive developments.

How Americans would respond to a new large religious building nearby

I’ll post a Quick Review of American Grace soon (see an earlier post here) but I wanted look at an excerpt about another topic I have written about recently: how suburban governments respond to requests for the construction of religious buildings (this includes churches and mosques). Here is a description of findings from the 2007 Faith Matters Survey (pages 512-514)

How Americans respond to land use matters involving religious groups depends on the religion in questions. According to the 2007 Faith Matter survey, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) say that the construction of a large Christian church in their community would either not both them (55 percent) or is something they would welcome (37 percent). This level of acceptance is high even among the most secular tenth of the population (87 percent), although their reaction is far less supportive. Eighty-two percent of the highly secular say that they would merely “not be bothered” by a large Christian church, while just 5 percent would explicitly welcome it.

Because of the near-ubiquity of Christian churches in American communities, we were also interested in reactions to a religious facility that would unfamiliar to many Americans, and so we asked about the construction of a “large Buddhist temple.”…

The point of asking about both kinds of religious structures it to distinguish among different reasons for opposing their construction. Some people might oppose both a large Christian church and a large Buddhist temple because they object to the construction of any sizable structure in their neighborhood, whether it be a church, a temple, a restaurant, a store. Or it could be because they have an aversion to religion of any kind. However, opposition to a Buddhist temple but not a Christian church would suggest that the concern lies with Buddhism specifically or perhaps “exotic” (or non-Christian) religions more generally.

For Buddhists who might be planning to build a temple, our results contain good news and bad news. The good news is the high overall support, at least in the abstract for a Buddhist temple. Three quarters of Americans (76 percent) say they have no problem with the construction of a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood. The bad news is that only a small number (15 percent) would explicitly welcome it in their midst. Even worse news for the Buddhists is that one in five Americans (20 percent) say that they have no problem with a large Christian church but would object to a Buddhist temple…Approval of a Buddhist temple drops precipitously as personal religiosity increases…

These are interesting findings that suggest Americans are pretty favorable toward large new churches in their community and a majority would be favorable toward a large Buddhist temple. A few thoughts about these findings:

1. The interchanging of the term “community” and “neighborhood” bothers me. The original survey questions (see here) ask about buildings built in a community. I would assume many survey respondents would perceive a neighborhood as a smaller, closer geographic area and might respond differently. It would be one thing for a Naperville resident to express support for a Buddhist temple on the other side of the community, perhaps 7-8 miles away, compared to expressing support for a temple within a 15 minute walk.

2. I would suspect that more Americans would be less supportive if the questions asked about large religious buildings very close to their home. Residential neighbors often get worked up about such structures, not people from the other side of the community (unless it is a smaller community). This would be NIMBY in action.

3. The word “large” in the survey questions is a bit unclear here: are we talking about a megachurch or a congregation of 300? The sorts of problems Americans complain about regarding large structures, such as traffic, are larger with bigger buildings.

4. It’s too bad there isn’t a third question asking about responses to a proposal for a large mosque. While both Buddhists and Muslims are rated low according to larger American religious groups (see pages 501-509), I wonder if many Americans wouldn’t see Islam as more foreign than Buddhism.

On the whole, I am a bit skeptical that these survey results reflect zoning and municipal discussions regarding large religious congregations. Perhaps a very vocal minority tends to oppose such buildings – this tends to characterize a lot of local development discussions. But when residents feel threatened by such large structures, their magnanimity may decrease.

Islamophobia: a complicated tale

Time magazine asks a provocative question with its August 30th cover: “Is America Islamophobic?” The story cites a number of statistics, including recent poll figures about whether Americans think President Obama is Muslim, to suggest that Americans have some qualms and/or misperceptions about Islam.

I have little doubt that there is truth in the article – the situation could certainly be improved. However, even with the generally negative tone, the story also  admits the situation is more complicated:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. 

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.

A couple things to take out of these two paragraphs:

1. Evidence of increased violence against Muslims is limited or doesn’t exist.

2. There is some anecdotal evidence. This is not necessarily bad evidence but it isn’t systematic or tell us how widespread the issues are.

3. This is not what we might typically consider “religious persecution” – which perhaps suggests how this is defined will change.

4. These issues may be worse in other nations – there is more written about this is in the magazine version as opposed to the abridged version online. Some of the part that is missing between the two paragraphs quoted above:

Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country’s first Muslim college will formally open in Berkeley, California…

This suggests that America is one of the better Western nations Muslims can move to. What about America has led to these feelings of safety and freedom among Muslims? We could ask another question: what about America has stopped the response to Islam from being worse, particularly considering the emotions and symbolism of 9/11?

Another quote in the article is intriguing: writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar says, “Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America…You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it.” The part about the potshots may be true but the first part of this quote ignores a long and complicated racial history in America, particularly antipathy toward African-Americans and other groups. Americans have an infamous legacy of dislike and hatred toward newcomers or “the other” – this is not simply an issue with Muslims.

This is a complicated situation that bears watching.