Analysis indicates Shia populations are being underreported

There are allegations that many Middle Eastern countries are deliberately underreporting their own native Shiite populations, and have been doing so for decades.

Muharram_procession, Manama, Bahrain, Feb 2005. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2015 – New analysis indicates that the worldwide population of Shia Muslims may be underreported to the tune of more than one hundred million individuals. A comparison of studies and statistical analyses shows that there are likely between 240 million and 350 million Shia Muslims in the world today, a significantly higher number than the approximate “low end” figure of 150 million estimated by the Pew Research Center.

There are allegations that many Middle Eastern countries are deliberately underreporting their own native Shiite populations and have been doing so for decades. A WikiLeaks document shows that as early as 1978 the following message was being circulated with regard to Iraq’s Shia population, then controlled by Saddam Hussein’s government:

This cable responds to questions…about Shia population. It is based on educated guesses shared by informed foreign diplomats and the few iraqi sources willing to discuss one of the touchier subjects in this country’s domestic politics…size of Shia population in iraq is sensitive issue.

Another WikiLeaks cable says, “There has never been any survey made according to religion. Therefore, the best we can do in estimating the Shia population is to extrapolate from statistics and judgements of informed observers.”

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A recent article in the New York Times entitled “WikiLeaks Shows a Saudi Obsession With Iran” bolsters this theory: “A trove of thousands of Saudi documents recently released by WikiLeaks reveals in surprising detail how the government’s goal in recent years was not just to spread its strict version of Sunni Islam — though that was a priority — but also to undermine its primary adversary: Shiite Iran.

“The documents from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry illustrate a near obsession with Iran, with diplomats in Africa, Asia and Europe monitoring Iranian activities in minute detail and top government agencies plotting moves to limit the spread of Shiite Islam.”

Later on, the article clearly demonstrates the depth of Saudi’s paranoia: “The fear of Shiite influence extended to countries where Muslims are small minorities, like China, where a Saudi delegation was charged with ‘suggesting practical programs that can be carried out to confront Shiite expansion in China.’”

Pew’s famous 2009 study estimated that only 10 to 13 percent of Muslims are Shias, with an approximate worldwide population of between 154 million and 200 million adherents. According to Pew, “For most countries with sizeable Muslim populations, one or more experts provided the Pew Forum with their best estimate of the Sunni-Shia breakdown based on their own review of the published sources and other expert analyses available to them.”

However, many reputable think tanks and academics disagree with Pew’s conclusions. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) estimates that 15 percent of Muslims are Shia and uses Pew’s own data sources to do so. At 15 percent, alongside CFR’s count of 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, this would indicate that the Shiite world population stands at least at 240 million, nearly 90 million more individuals that Pew’s low estimate.

In 2006, Dr. Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine showcasing demographics for the worldwide Shia population that strongly differed from Pew’s research.

For example, whereas Pew counted a mere 17 million Shiites in Pakistan, Nasr proves at least 33.2 million were residing there. The newest estimate of that country’s Shia population − based upon the State Department’s assessment that 20 percent of Pakistan is Shia, as well as the newest census by the Pakistan Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms indicating a total Pakistani population of 191.71 million citizens − means that there are now at least 38.2 million Shias in the country.

It is well-established that Azerbaijan is a majority Shia Muslim country. In 2009, Pew listed that country as having between 5 million and 7 million Shias. However, statistics from the CIA World Factbook show at least 8.16 million Shiites are living there today.

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The CIA World Factbook updates the demographics for several countries, including Afghanistan, which has at least 6.1 million Shias (up from Pew’s 3-4 million) and estimating that Iraq has 24.1 million (up from Pew’s 19 million).

Iran is the world’s largest Shia country. A variety of studies show that 90 to 95 percent of the Iranian population follow Shiaism. According to statistics from the United Nations, the country currently has a total population of more than 75 million. Accordingly, there must be more than 71 million Shias in the country. In 2009, Pew said there could be as few as 66 million.

Numbers for India also show a strong disparity.

The Pew study stated that there were only 16-24 million Shias in that country. However, the Indian NGO “Alimaan Trust” shows that there are currently more than 30 million Shiites in the Indian subcontinent. This number is bolstered by a 1997 Britannica Book of the Year entry indicating that India has 26 million Shia Muslims.

Considering India’s staggering birth rate and the progression of that rate during nearly two decades, the Alimaan Trust’s analysis is likely to be closer to the truth.

The Turkish Rapport Minority Rights Group wrote in its publication “Bir eşitlik arayışı: Türkiye’de azınlıklar Uluslararası Azınlık Hakları Grubu” that there must be at least 22 million Shias in that country. But Pew counted a mere 7-11 million, which is at the high end is half of Turkey’s own numbers.

Considering differing statistics, propaganda efforts by governments that can be described as “anti-Shia,” and the rapid growth of the human population in general, it is clear that most previous reports of the worldwide population of Shia Muslims can only be fairly called “underestimates.”

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Rahat Husain
Rahat Husain has been working as a columnist since 2013 when he joined the Communities. With an interest in America and Islam, Rahat is a prolific writer on contemporary and international issues. In addition to writing for the Communities, Rahat Husain is an Attorney based in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at UMAA Advocacy. For the past six years, Mr. Husain has worked with Congressmen, Senators, federal agencies, think tanks, NGOs, policy institutes, and academic experts to advocate on behalf of Shia Muslim issues, both political and humanitarian. UMAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of Shia Ithna Asheri Muslims in North America at its annual convention.