A new survey focusing on the upcoming mid-term elections from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offers little insight into the American Muslim mind; but it does, inadvertently, illustrate CAIR's failure to have become a unifying, representative voice of American Islam.
Carried out between May and June 2022 "during the 2022 primary season of local and state elections, and congressional midterm elections," CAIR's survey collected 525 responses from voters who claimed to be Muslim, answering questions about various "social and policy issues" as well as political party affiliations and opinions.
But the methodology was shoddy. Respondents were found by CAIR entirely through its own email lists and social media pages, with the resulting survey then speciously presented as a proper exercise in data analysis. This was not a survey of American Muslims, but mostly of American Islamists; and only those who subscribe to CAIR.
A number of survey questions illustrate that CAIR's sample was hardly an accurate reflection. On ethnicity, for instance, CAIR claims just under 11% of respondents were black, which is sharply at odds with a 2017 survey by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) estimating the figure to be as much as 25%. Meanwhile, CAIR's Hispanic respondents make up less than 2% of their sample, compared to the 8% Pew 2017 survey estimate. And 27% of CAIR's sample were reported as Arab, in contrast to the ISPU's estimate that Arabs make up only 18% of American Muslims.
But while CAIR's most recent effort may be a junk survey, it is not entirely useless. These datapoints do tell us something about CAIR's own supporters.
CAIR's apparent lack of support from Black and Hispanic Muslims is not too surprising. The extent of the enthusiasm among ordinary American Muslims for the Islamist group may be relatively small. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, only 12% of American Muslims reported that CAIR "best represents" their interests.
That the plurality of CAIR's backing, according to the survey, comes from Muslims of Arab ethnicity makes some sense. As noted by the Anti-Defamation League, CAIR was founded in 1994 by three leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a "now defunct organization that was once described by the U.S. government as part of "Hamas' propaganda apparatus." CAIR's inaugural officials – many of whom are still involved with the organization today – were leading voices within American branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Arab Islamist movement.
In other regards, the composition of CAIR's supporters is also curiously unrepresentative. Almost 68% of respondents claimed to be male. And only 18% of respondents were under 35, despite that also being the median age of American Muslims, as reported by Pew. Demographically, then, CAIR is looking less and less relevant.
Politically, however, among its supporters, CAIR seems to be at least achieving something. Over the past decade, CAIR has worked particularly hard to galvanize Muslims into exerting influence through the ballot box. Every month, CAIR branches can be found encouraging voter registration drives, organizing lobbying days, partnering with candidate training organizations, and working with members of Congress and State legislators. As Benjamin Baird, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamism in Politics project, notes: "[CAIR] is focused on increasing registration and turnout of Muslim voters, and on supporting scores of Muslim candidates to win elections, mostly at the local level. They use identity politics in hopes of mobilizing Muslims into a monolithic voting bloc to push their agenda."
CAIR's efforts seem to be working. Some 97% of respondents to CAIR's survey report they are registered to vote. During the last national election, only 70% of Americans registered. In addition, 82% of CAIR's sample indicated they "definitely will vote" in the November mid-term election, compared with a turnout of 40 to 50% among the broader American population in previous mid-term elections.
Despite CAIR's continued involvement with radical clerics and its regular promotion of extremist rhetoric, it has for many years been busy working on progressivist causes, in partnership with various components of the Left. CAIR has been found rallying for Black Lives Matter and campaigning on issues such as "social justice," prison reform and higher minimum wages, among other things.
These efforts are reflected in the survey. Eighty-two percent support a ban on semi-automatic rifles, 74% support a partial or full cancellation of all federal student loan debt, and 55% support laws permitting abortion.
These are not the politics of all American Islamists, however. In fact, CAIR's embrace of certain left-leaning ideas has led hardline Islamist preachers such as Daniel Haqiqatjou to accuse the group of diluting Islam with "liberalism" and "social justice" by promoting "blasphemy and outright kufr."
CAIR's respondents, however, are not yet of one mind. While many have adopted a Left-leaning line on issues such as abortion, gun rights and student debt, a plurality – some 43% – consider themselves "fiscally conservative," and slightly more respondents claimed to be "conservative" than "liberal" on "social issues."
Nonetheless, CAIR's supporters lean overwhelmingly Democrat, with 67% reporting they wished for the Democrats to retain control of Congress in the November mid-terms. 11.4% hoped Republicans would win back control.
These figures stand somewhat in contrast to CAIR's 2018 mid-term elections survey, which, conducted during the Trump administration, found that over 17% of respondents preferred the Republicans (although bear in mind the question was worded rather differently). Moreover, more respondents considered themselves "liberal" on social issues.
Unlike the 2022 survey, however, the 2018 survey was not drawn from CAIR's social media pages and mailing lists, but from a "randomization procedure from a larger database of more than 250,000 Muslim voter households." Where CAIR acquired this dubious database from is not clear, although by virtue of the size of the dataset it is likely to be somewhat more accurate, albeit probably beset by some of the same biases.
It is most telling that CAIR did not utilize this same database for this year's poll. The 2022 survey's much smaller collection of respondents drawn entirely from CAIR's own mailing lists has taken the sampling biases of CAIR's "research department" to an entirely new level – giving CAIR a better chance at collecting the responses for which they were hoping. Although as the statistics above show, this was not entirely a foolproof plan.
Either way, it seems CAIR is evidently not considered a trusted source for insight into the Muslim community as a whole. Helpfully, the media appears to have noticed such deficiencies. Almost no coverage of CAIR's survey has been published, despite half a dozen press releases sent out by CAIR and a week of build-up in its newsletters and staff articles.
As for the insights into CAIR's own base, it seems that this Islamist group's supporters may be deeply politically engaged, but they are far from the monolithic bloc that CAIR has long hoped to shape.
CAIR is not the only Islamist organization to publish ill-conceived and poorly executed surveys. Given the embarrassing methodologies employed, along with the questionable results, it really would be in CAIR and other Islamists' best interests to stop conducting these polls entirely. Although for the sake of the Middle East Forum's interests, as well as for the amusement of moderate Muslims and counter-extremism analysts across America, we certainly hope they continue.
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.