Iranian Americans are a Predominantly Secular Community

May 1, 2013, Washington D.C. – On April 18, 2013, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) released its 2013 National Public Opinion Survey of Iranian Americans, the fifth such survey PAAIA has commissioned since its creation in 2008.  The report includes the poll results themselves as well as extensive demographic information on those questioned. While the poll results have, understandably, attracted the lion’s share of attention, it would be a mistake to neglect the demographic information included in the report.  The picture that emerges from the demographic data is one of a community that is religiously diverse, predominantly secular, well-educated, and relatively affluent.  It is the picture of a community that contributes greatly to the economic fabric of America.  

Being one of the only regular sources of demographic information on the Iranian American community, the data contained in the report has great potential for assisting in future research on this community and its evolution. 

According to the survey findings, as a group, Iranian Americans are religiously diverse, and are far more secular than the general U.S. population.  By a nearly two to one margin, those who were questioned stated that their religious identity was “not very strong” (65 percent) as opposed to “very strong” (35 percent). By comparison, in a survey of Americans as a whole released by the Pew Forum in November 2012, the overall picture was reversed.  Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that religion was “very important” in their lives and another twenty-two percent said that it was “somewhat important.”  Only eighteen percent said it was “not too important” or “not important at all.”

While an overwhelming majority of Iranian Americans are from a Muslim background, only thirty-four percent of respondents to the 2013 poll identified themselves as Muslim, consistent with previous polls.  Thirty-two percent identified their religious preference as other.  The percentages of Iranian Americans identifying themselves as Jewish (9) atheist (9) and agnostic (8) in the 2013 survey are all  higher than the percentages of Americans as a whole who identify themselves as one of these religions.  Those results have, generally, been in the low single digits. In this respect, the 2013 survey is, once again, consistent with previous polls commissioned by PAAIA.   From these demographics, one can ascertain that though religion is a significant part of the Iranian American identity, it is not its primary component.

In addition to being more secular, Iranian Americans are more educated than Americans as a whole.  Of those questioned in the 2013 survey, fifty-five percent said they had received a bachelor’s degree or higher.  This figure is consistent with other surveys and studies.  In the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, fifty-eight of Iranian Americans age 25 or over were said to have received at least a BA.   In comparison, the percentage of Americans as a whole (also 25 or over) receiving a BA or something higher only surpassed thirty percent for the first time in the 2011 census. 

The education level of Iranian Americans is not a new phenomenon.  A report released in 2004 by the Iranian Studies Group at MIT, drawing on information from the 2000 census, concluded that Iranian Americans are among the best educated ethnic groups in the United States.   Greater education tends to mean greater affluence, and this holds true for the Iranian American community as well.   Similar to previous PAAIA surveys, in the 2013 survey, a majority—fifty-four percent—stated that their annual income was $60,000 or more.  According to Census Bureau data for 2011, the last year currently available, only forty-two percent of Americans as a whole earned at the same rate.  Thirty-two percent of Iranian Americans in the 2013 survey reported a household income of $100,000 or more, whereas the 2011 Census Bureau figures showed only twenty-one percent of Americans as a whole earning that much. 

PAAIA’s surveys, which are used by policy makers, media, and the general public to gain a better understanding of our community, paint the picture of a community that is, in many ways, different from how it is portrayed by mainstream media. The community is diverse,  relatively affluent and with strong connections to their culture and heritage.  In addition to maintaining close ties to the people of Iran, they have assimilated well to the social and economic fabric of America, , and have contributed substantially to the prosperity of the country. It is a source of pride for the community.

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