Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies

Chapter 2

Background on Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh Communities in the United States

In planning the forum, the Inter-SAC Committee decided to focus on four overlapping communities in the national capital area that have been most severely affected by hate violence and discrimination related to September 11: Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs. These “communities” are understood in their broadest sense, as including not only noncitizen immigrants but also naturalized U.S. citizens and U.S.-born Americans of these backgrounds. In addition, the Committee identified Muslim women as a population with special concerns.

It is important at the outset to stress that the various labels, used at times indiscriminately in the media and in popular discourse, have distinct meanings and are not interchangeable. “Arab” refers to language and culture; “Muslim” and “Sikh” refer to religion; while “South Asian” (like “Middle Eastern”[1]) refers to region of origin. There is, of course, considerable overlap between the populations: for example, many—but not all—Arabs are also Muslims. Panelists noted that some Americans are confused about the various labels, believing, for example, that “Muslim” and “Arab” mean the same thing,[2] or that turban-wearing Sikhs are Arab and Muslim when in fact they are neither.

This chapter briefly profiles each of the four main groups, explaining who is included and presenting selected data on the size, geographic distribution, and characteristics of each of these communities in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and nationwide. It should be noted, however, that it is very difficult to gauge the size of these populations, either nationally or locally. U.S. census data can in some cases provide rough estimates, but the census tends to undercount minority groups, and in any case does not ask about religious affiliation.


Arabs are people who speak Arabic as their first language, numbering more than 200 million worldwide.[3] The “Arab world” consists of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa where Arabic is the principal (although not the only) language spoken.[4] Arabs are united by language, culture, and history, but they are religiously diverse: most Arabs are Muslims, but there are also millions of Christian Arabs and thousands of Jewish Arabs.

Arabic-speaking people have come to the United States in several major waves, beginning in the late 19th century. Although they share a common linguistic and cultural heritage, Arab Americans are a highly diverse group. While all Arab countries have sent emigrants to this country, the majority of Arab Americans today are of Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, or Palestinian descent.[5] About three-quarters of Arab Americans are Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant),[6] many descended from the first major wave that consisted mainly of Syrian and Lebanese merchants.[7] Only about a quarter of the Arab American population is Muslim. However, a second wave of Arab immigration that started after World War II is predominantly Muslim, making Muslims the fastest-growing segment of the Arab American community.[8]

Although the 2000 census reported about 1.25 million Americans of Arab ancestry, other researchers put the total at around 3 million.[9] Eighty-two percent of persons of Arab descent in the United States are U.S. citizens, and 63 percent were born in this country;[10] contrary to the stereotypes, Arab Americans are by no means completely or even mainly an immigrant group.[11]

The Arab American population is overwhelmingly urban, and Washington, D.C., is one of the top five metropolitan areas where this population resides; the others are Los Angeles, Detroit, New York-New Jersey, and Chicago.[12] In the national capital area, the largest concentrations are in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

As a group, Arab Americans are relatively young, have education and income above the U.S. average, and work mainly in white-collar occupations; many are small-business owners. Diverse in their party affiliations, Arab Americans have held public office at many levels.[13]

South Asians

South Asians originate in the countries of the South Asian subcontinent, that is, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives. (Afghanistan is not properly considered part of South Asia, although there are close ties.) South Asians are linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse, with large populations of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, as well as many religious minorities.

The first significant South Asian immigration to the United States occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when Indian laborers, mainly Sikhs, made their way to California and the Pacific Northwest in response to recruitment by railroad, steamship, and lumber companies.[14] Congress barred immigration from Asia between 1918 and 1946, but immigration from across South Asia greatly accelerated with the immigration reform of 1965. Today there are at least 2 million people of South Asian ancestry in the United States. Indians are by far the largest group, with 1.7 million people reporting Indian origin in the 2000 census; Pakistanis are second largest.[15] Some other researchers and organizations believe the totals to be much higher than the census figures indicate.[16] In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area the Census Bureau estimates 152,655 South Asians, including 83,642 in Virginia, 65,769 in Maryland, and 3,244 in the District of Columbia.[17]

Among South Asians in this country, the large Indian American community stands out as particularly well educated and prosperous, with education and income levels that exceed those of U.S.-born whites.[18] Many are professionals, especially doctors, scientists, engineers, and financial analysts, and there are also a large number of entrepreneurs. The five urban areas with the largest Indian populations include the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area as well as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.[19]


Muslims are followers of Islam. One of the three major monotheistic religions in the world, Islam calls for complete acceptance of and submission to the teachings and guidance of God. Anyone may become a Muslim, regardless of gender, race, or nationality, by reciting a declaration of faith and embracing a lifestyle in accord with Islamic principles. Specific acts, including fasting, daily prayer, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, are considered the pillars of Muslim spiritual life.[20]

There are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. They live in every world region and belong to many different cultures and ethnic groups. The 10 countries with the largest Muslim populations, in descending order, are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, and China.[21] Of these, only Egypt is an Arab country, and despite the stereotypes, only 193 million of the world’s Muslims—15 to 18 percent of the total—are Arabs.[22]

Although the presence of Muslims in the United States dates back to the 1500s, the first major wave of Muslim immigration took place in the late 19th century, with arrivals from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and other Arab lands.[23] Immigration of Muslims from many countries accelerated after 1965 and continues apace, as do conversions of U.S.-born Americans to Islam. Estimates of the current number of Muslims in the United States vary from as low as 1.5 million to as high as 6–7 million, the latter figure being accepted by major Muslim organizations.[24] The number of mosques in this country has grown by 25 percent in the past seven years and now totals more than 1,200.[25]

The Muslim population in this country is ethnically diverse. Immigrant Muslims come mainly from the South Asian and Arab countries, with smaller numbers from Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Southeast Asia.[26] There is also a growing population of American-born converts to Islam, most of them African Americans, making up perhaps a third of the total population of Muslims in the United States.[27] The 10 states with the largest Muslim populations, in order, are California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, and Maryland.[28] In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, according to one researcher’s estimates, there are 60,000 to 70,000 immigrant Muslims and 25,000 African American Muslims.[29]

A recent survey of Muslims across the United States found this population to be predominantly young, well educated, and concentrated in professional, managerial, and technical occupations.[30] Eight in 10 respondents were registered to vote,[31] and of those registered, 85 percent said they were very likely to vote. Large majorities expressed support for robust participation in American life, including involvement with civic, charitable, and professional organizations, while also reporting that they are active at their mosque or other religious organization.


Sikhs are followers of the Sikh religion. Founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that retains some elements of Islam and Hinduism while also defining important differences from them (rejecting, for example, the caste system). It is the fifth largest religion in the world with an estimated 23 million adherents,[32] the majority of them in India, although there has been a substantial diaspora to other areas of the world. Sikhs wear distinctive dress to signify commitment to their faith, including uncut hair covered by a turban and a small ceremonial sword known as a kirpan. All Sikh men include “Singh” in their surnames and all Sikh women include “Kaur.”

Although often perceived as foreign because of their turbans, Sikhs have lived in the United States for more than a hundred years. Sikh immigrants first came to the Pacific Coast states around the turn of the 20th century to build railroads, farm, or work in mills and foundries.[33] Later, as Asian immigration picked up after 1965, Sikhs arrived in sizable numbers in various parts of the country. Although no firm figures are available, the number of Sikhs in the United States today is estimated at around 500,000, with some 6,000 to 8,000 in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.[34] Although Sikh Americans, like others from South Asia and the Middle East, endured discrimination in employment and education,[35] they have “not only prospered in business, industry, and the professions; they are also beginning to participate in the political life” of the country of their adoption.[36]

[1] Although used frequently in policy contexts, the term “Middle Eastern” is too broad to be a useful population identifier for the purposes of this report. “The Middle East” is a loose designation referring to Southwest Asia along with parts of North Africa, and is usually taken to include the Arabic-speaking countries from Egypt east to the Persian Gulf, plus Israel and Iran and sometimes Turkey. People who live in this region are diverse in language, culture, and religion. See American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “Facts About Arabs and the Arab World,” < php?id=248> (July 23, 2002).

[2] Yahya Hendi, testimony before the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Annandale, Virginia, April 24–25, 2002, transcript, p. 23 (hereafter cited as Forum Transcript).

[3] American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “Facts About Arabs and the Arab World.”

[4] Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Iran and Turkey are not Arab countries (their primary languages are Farsi and Turkish, respectively). Nor, of course, is Afghanistan, notwithstanding some confusion in the U.S. public on this point. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “Facts About Arabs and the Arab World.”

[5] Arab American Institute Foundation, “Arab American Population Highlights,” <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[6] Catholic includes Roman Catholic, Maronite, and Melkite (Greek Catholic) rites; Orthodox includes Antiochian, Syrian, Greek, and Coptic rites; and Muslim includes Sunni, Shi’a, and Druze. Zogby International Survey, February 2000, cited in Arab American Institute Foundation, “Arab American Population Highlights.”

[7] Samia El-Badry, “The Arab-American Market,” American Demographics, January 1994.

[8] Helen Hatab Samhan, “Who Are Arab Americans?” <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[9] Arab American Institute, “Census Figures on Arab Population in U.S. Give Partial Glimpse at Community,” press release, June 5, 2002.

[10] Arab American Institute Foundation, “Quick Facts About Arab Americans,” < htm> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[11] Attorney Albert Mokaiber, a member of the forum audience, commented: “I’m a fourth-generation Arab American. My grandfather was in World War I, my father World War II, my brother during Vietnam, and I have two nephews on active duty now. We do not need to take a political litmus test. We’re solid citizens.” Forum Transcript, p. 403.

[12] Arab American Institute Foundation, “Quick Facts About Arab Americans.”

[13] Samhan, “Who Are Arab Americans?”

[14] Indian American Center for Political Awareness, “Indian American History” and “Indian American Immigration,” <> (Oct. 19, 2002).

[15] U.S. Census Bureau, “The Asian Population: 2000,” February 2002, < pdf> (Oct. 18, 2002).

[16] For example, Neeta Bhasin of ASB Communications, a New York-based agency specializing in the South Asian market, estimates there are 4 million South Asians in the country, including 2.2 million Indians and 1 million Pakistanis; these estimates are derived from research by various organizations. Personal communication, Sept. 12, 2002.

[17] Lobenstine testimony, Forum Transcript, p. 18.

[18] Based on data from the 2000 census, cited in Indian American Center for Political Awareness, “Income, Education, and Occupation,” <> (Oct. 19, 2002).

[19] Based on data from the 2000 census, cited in Indian American Center for Political Awareness, “Indian American Population in the Largest Metropolitan Areas in the United States,” <> (Oct. 19, 2002).

[20] The two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, have some doctrinal differences between them. Worldwide, 85–90 percent of Muslims are Sunnis. Each of these primary branches of Islam contains several different “schools” or sub-branches. In addition, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism which, although a small minority, has greatly influenced the faith. For more information about the doctrines and practices of Islam, see Council on Islamic Education, “About Islam and Muslims,” <> (Oct. 17, 2002), and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “Facts About Islam,” <> (Sept. 9, 2002). See also the summary of Panel One.

[21] American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, “Facts About Arabs and the Arab World.”

[22] Council on Islamic Education, “About Islam and Muslims.”

[23] Ibid.

[24] Bill Broadway, “Number of U.S. Muslims Depends on Who’s Counting,” Washington Post, Nov. 24, 2001; Gustav Niebuhr, “Studies Suggest Lower Count for Number of U.S. Muslims,” New York Times, Oct. 25, 2001. Figures are uncertain, in part because the U.S. census does not ask about religious affiliation.

[25] Council on American-Islamic Relations, “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” < mosquereport/> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[26] A survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that at the average mosque, 33 percent of members are of South Asian origin, 30 percent are African American, and 25 percent are from the Arabic-speaking world. See “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait.”

[27] Abdul-Malik testimony, Forum Transcript, p. 311. Estimates of the percentage of U.S. Muslims who are African American vary. In addition to the survey cited above by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which found 30 percent African Americans among mosque members, a recent survey of U.S. Muslims by Zogby International found 20 percent of the respondents identifying themselves as African American, but the survey sample was small. See Project MAPS: Muslims in American Public Square and Zogby International, “American Muslim Poll,” November/December 2001, <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[28] Council on Islamic Education, “About Islam and Muslims.”

[29] Estimates by Sulayman Nyang, principal investigator with Project MAPS: Muslims in American Public Square, cited in Lobenstine testimony, Forum Transcript, p. 16.

[30] Researchers interviewed 1,781 Muslim adults in November–December 2001. See Project MAPS, “American Muslim Poll.”

[31] Of the 21 percent of respondents who were not registered, half said it was because they were not U.S. citizens, while the other half gave varying reasons.

[32] Singh testimony, Forum Transcript, p. 325.

[33] Library of the University of California at Berkeley, “Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899–1965,” <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[34] Singh testimony, Forum Transcript, p. 325.

[35] Ranbir S. Sandhu, “Sikhs in America: Stress and Survival,” in Recent Researches in Sikhism, eds., Jasbir S. Mann and Kharak S. Mann (Patiala, India: Punjab University, 1992). Available at <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[36] Patwant Singh, The Sikhs (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 242. For example, in 1957 Dalip Singh Saund (D-CA) became the first Indian-American to be elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served for three terms.