America will have more Muslims than Jews within 12 years

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IN LITTLE more than a decade, the number of Muslims in the United States is set to overtake the number of Jews, in a shift that has far- reaching implications for America's domestic and foreign policy.

By 2010, it is estimated that the US Muslim population -, which has risen from an estimated 0.4 per cent of the population to almost 1.4 per cent today - will pass the declining number of Jews. The 1997 Britannica Book of the Year gives only proportions, saying Jews, who accounted for 3.3 per cent of the population in the mid-Seventies, will account for only 2 per cent in 2000. By 2010, it projects, the proportion of Muslims and Jews will have switched.

Figures obtained from Jewish and Muslim organisations, however, suggest the crossing point may already have been reached. They give similar figures for their current numbers - about 6 million each. The US Census Bureau does not record statistics by religion or culture. But what is incontestable, is that in purely numerical terms the position of Jews and Muslims is being reversed.

The increase in Muslim numbers reflects partly immigration from the Indian subcontinent and north Africa in the Sixties and Seventies, but also the accelerating rate of conversion by American blacks. Converts are estimated to account for half the present number of Muslims and the number of converts is increasing fast.

If it were just a matter of numbers, the effect of this shift might be limited. The prominence of American Jews has long enabled them to punch above their weight in politics and business. But the Muslims are catching up. The growing influence of US Muslims is reported in this week's Newsweek magazine, which stresses the vitality of what it calls the "new Islam" - an Americanised blend of the strands of Islam which has little truck with restrictions on women. "The US is arguably the best place on earth to be Muslim," the report says. "Multicultural democracy, with its guarantees of religious freedom and speech, makes life easier for Muslims than in many Islamic states in the Middle East."

It says Muslims are emerging in the professions and as a cohesive voting bloc. US Muslims, it concludes, may become a force to be reckoned with.

The demographic trend has not gone unnoticed by the White House. At the end of Ramadan, the President sent a message to the Islamic countries and American Muslims, and Hillary Clinton hosted a party for Muslim women.

It is in foreign priorities where the demographic shift may be felt most keenly. Already, the coolness between Israel's present government and Washington has clipped US wings in the Middle East. It has also provoked divisions among American Jews about how Washington should proceed .

But while policy differences and declining numbers may weaken the celebrated "Jewish lobby", there is as yet no Islamic lobby to challenge for more influence. And Washington, still caught in the thicket of past hostilities with Iraq, Iran and Libya, is finding it hard to contemplate a change of direction. Within the decade, however, it may not be thirst for Middle East oil that pushes Washington to treat with Arabs, but a wealthy, vocal and streamlined lobby right in its midst.

t Chicago (Reuters) - The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the US has dropped for the third consecutive year last year, the Anti-Defamation League reported. In 1997 there were 1,571 cases, resulting in 78 arrests. A record 2,066 cases were reported in 1994.