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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Can NYC Profile Young Muslim Males?

Earlier this month Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Councilmember James Oddo both suggested that random searches in the subway weren’t good enough; the police should target particular people. “When we look at the list of the most-wanted people by the FBI in terms of terrorism, they fit a profile," Hikind said. "They look a certain way, they are young, and they come from a certain part of the world.” Oddo was even more explicit in a commentary he wrote for the Daily News: "It is important to acknowledge that nearly every Jihadist who has engaged in terrorist attacks has been a young man who called himself Muslim - the common denominator among the recent bombings in London and Madrid, the 9/11 attacks, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the would-be millennium bombers, the destroyer Cole, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Pan Am Flight 103, TWA Flight 847 and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon.”

But even if the New York Police Department wanted to do so – and it has said clearly that it doesn’t -- profiling young Muslim males is virtually impossible. They are not as easy to spot as Oddo and Hikind seem to think.

Muslims live in most countries throughout the world. Click here for a chart that shows the countries with the highest Muslim population. China ranks ninth. Russia ranks 18th. Indonesia has the most absolute number of Muslims, more than 88 percent of their population is Muslim, and yet there are 30 countries that have a higher proportion of Muslims.

So, some Chinese New Yorkers may be Muslim, while some Indonesians may not be. But let’s take the 25 countries in which at least 50 percent of the population is Muslim. There are 231,000 New Yorkers who claim heritage from these 25 countries, as the following table shows.

Number and Percent Those With Muslim Country Heritage
Afghan 4,448 1.93%
Albanian 26,260 11.39%
Arab 14,766 6.41%
Bangladeshi 32,335 14.03%
Bosnian 2,838 1.23%
Croatian 11,971 5.19%
Egyptian 16,346 7.09%
Eritrean 323 0.14%
Indonesian 3,601 1.56%
Iranian 7,937 3.44%
Iraqi 1,006 0.44%
Jordanian 956 0.41%
Lebanese 11,332 4.92%
Malaysian 2,695 1.17%
Middle Eastern 1,075 0.47%
Moroccan 4,982 2.16%
Nigerian 16,904 7.33%
Pakistani 40,051 17.37%
Palestinian 3,334 1.45%
Sierra Leonean 795 0.34%
Somalian 17 0.01%
Sudanese 943 0.41%
Syrian 11,685 5.07%
Turkish 12,357 5.36%
Yemeni 1,578 0.68%
Total 230,535  

Some are black, some are Asian; more than 50 percent are white.

Muslims will be much more difficult to pick out from a New York crowd. They are not racially or physically distinct.

But even if one could pick out Muslims as they boarded the subways or airplanes, there is demographic evidence that it would be a wasted effort. When compared with other New Yorkers those whose heritage is a Muslim-majority country are richer, better educated and more likely to be married than other New Yorkers. Most are citizens.

Characteristics of Those With Muslim Country Heritage

Ancestry Muslim Country All Others
Male 55.8% 45.6%
Black 9.2% 28.9%
White 56.8% 47.3%
Asian 35.6% 10.1%
Other 14.6% 17.3%
Four Years or More College 37.3% 27.3%
Married With Spouse 61.3% 44.3%
Non-Citizen 43.7% 19.9%
Working 58.5% 52.9%
Owned House 25.7% 30.4%
Median Household Income $40,000 $37,000

This is also true of Arab-American New Yorkers , as I demonstrated previously.

Profiling by origin is the sort of policy that seems appealing during periods of stress and hysteria, but in hindsight is almost always seen as a mistake – such as the internment of Japanese-American during World War II. In this case, however, it wouldn’t even be possible.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and been in charge of Gotham Gazette's demographics topic page since 2000. The opinions expressed are his alone. 

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