Arabs and Muslims miss out due to census failures

Arabs and Muslims miss out due to census failures

Arab-Americans join in a traditional dance during the annual Arab-American Heritage Festival in Brooklyn. (Getty Images)

You would think that every country would want an accurate count of who lives in their country, right? Unfortunately that’s not the case at all. In fact, you might get the impression from the way that many countries act that they don’t want an accurate census count because any shift in demographics, especially involving ethnicity and religion, can directly impact a nation’s policies, its spending and even its politics. Too often, countries embrace a census that is based on estimates or unofficial calculations. 

As a Palestinian, I know how important census data can be. The UN abandoned the official census taken in 1931 to instead estimate population sizes using other means. The 1931 numbers showed the Arab population was nearly five times the size of the Jewish population (about 861,000 Arabs compared to 174,000 Jews), but that didn’t sit well with the powers that wanted to create a “Jewish state” in Palestine 16 years later. They chose to use estimates to argue that the Jewish population, including legal and illegal immigrants, was far larger and therefore deserving of a larger land mass.

Today, Israel continues to manipulate its census — by not counting the non-Jewish population of the Occupied Territories — to preserve the “Jewish advantage” and to justify giving more state resources to Jews.

In nearby Lebanon, the government is confessional, based on the populations of the three top religious groups. However, it is defined by a nearly 90-year-old census taken in 1932, which shows Christians and Muslims in near equal balance. The president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must by a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the legislature must be a Shiite Muslim. 

No official census has been carried out that would reflect the growth of the Muslim community and the reduction in the Christian community because it would change the government-sharing arrangement. According to unofficial estimates, Muslims now make up more than 64 percent of Lebanon’s population. With relatively fewer people, the Christian minority would thus deserve less power. But to prevent a push for a census, Lebanon agreed in 2008 to give Hezbollah, which is a Shiite group, a greater voice in the legislature, including veto power over all Cabinet decisions, such as ministerial appointments.

One of the reasons why some nations seem to manipulate or avoid census data is to allow them to refuse to acknowledge the growth of their Muslim population. France, for example, does not collect data on religion in its census. Muslims now reportedly make up 8.8 percent of the French population, but the government has implemented policies to challenge the community’s traditions, such as the wearing of face veils.

Do Muslims make up 8.8 percent of the country’s population or is it more, or less? We don’t know officially and rely on estimates, such as those provided by the Pew Research Center. If there are more Muslims in Europe, they deserve a greater share of the resources and public assistance to encourage greater voter turnout.

Too often, countries embrace a census that is based on estimates or unofficial calculations. 

Ray Hanania

In America, the census is taken very seriously for every ethnic group except Arabs. More than $15 billion will be spent on Census 2020, or about $48 for each of the estimated 309 million Americans. The US census is very important, especially in determining the federal grant support the various ethnic groups receive. It has been accurate and beneficial to minority groups like blacks, Asians, Hispanics and the LGBT community, who all have special identifiers on the census forms to solicit accurate counts.

There is even a push, driven by political concerns, to add a question about citizenship. Why is that important? Not knowing the number of noncitizens living in a certain state, for example, means those noncitizens are included in the state’s total population. The more citizens a state has, the more federal government funding it receives. But, if the noncitizens are identified, they would be excluded from the total and the state would receive less money.

However, the biggest victims are Arab-Americans — a population that dominates much of the public’s concerns, fueled by news media bias that often portrays them as “extremists” or in other negative ways. The option to answer “Arab” or “Middle Eastern/North African” to the census question on race has been blocked from appearing on the forms. As a consequence, there is no official data on America’s Arab-American population. The estimates are low-balled, weakening Arab-American demands for a greater share of funding and representation in the US Congress. According to the US government, there are only 1.9 million Arab-Americans in America, but the Arab American Institute asserts there are actually about double that figure.

For Arabs and Muslims, having their populations low-balled undermines their empowerment and results in less government funding. It makes their existence negligible in comparison to the larger numbers of other ethnic and religious minorities.

  • Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached at his personal website at Twitter: @RayHanania
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