This Is Why Muslims Should Care About the 2020 Census

With a global pandemic happening, the last thing on your mind is probably the U.S. Census. What even is the U.S. Census?

Not many from our community understand the impact Census data has on our lives. From government representation to federal funding for social service programs, Census data is used to inform so many issues that impact our lives as American Muslim women. Census data is even more important for historically under-counted populations such as African Americans and Arab Americans. 

Within these populations, the “young and mobile” are especially hard to reach for many reasons. They may not be aware of the Census, they may not trust it, or they may have never filled it out before.  The “young and mobile” population are defined as ages 18-24, renters, unmarried, live in single person or unrelated households (e.g., with roommates), or live in multi-unit structures (e.g., apartment or multifamily units).

Census data is even more important for historically under-counted populations such as African Americans and Arab Americans. 

Shagufta Ahmed, who is a Pakistani – Indian American, works with the Census Bureau’s National Partnership Program, where she oversees outreach to faith communities, MENA communities, and federal agencies.

“Growing up, my father fiercely guarded my family’s privacy. He had a lot of concerns with sharing more than was necessary or required by law with the government or with anyone for that matter. He always feared misuse of information because he had seen what it could do, firsthand. Within this context, you can imagine why I would remember the experience of the 1990 Census vividly. A man who was apprehensive about sharing any information about his family made it a point to sit my sisters and me down at the dinner table to fill out the census together. I remember my dad saying it was important to participate in the census because this is where our community gets heard. This is where we get counted. The government needs to know about us when they develop public policies, he explained to us. My fiercely protective dad saw tremendous value in Census data. That is something that has stayed with me all these years. The fact that the census meant so much to my father and to all communities motivated me to help with community outreach for the 2020 Census. Also, when I’m not on assignment to the Census Bureau, I’m a policy analyst with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. We know evidence makes all the difference in effective outcomes. And data collection is critical to building evidence, and no place is better equipped for data collection than the U.S. Census Bureau,” she laments.

Shagufta Ahmed with the Director of the Census Bureau, Dr. Steven Dillingham, at the Interfaith event at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Ms. Ahmed was sharing how there are many women of color in leadership positions working on the 2020 Census.

Ms. Ahmed was able to answer some questions about the Census for our readers to clarify what exactly the Census is, why it’s important, and why you should make the time to respond to the Census today.

What is the Census?

“The 2020 Census is a count of everyone who lives in the United States and five of its territories. The count is mandated by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years, and is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, a non-partisan government agency.

Not many Muslims know this, but the idea of doing a census is rooted in many faith traditions, including Islam.  According to different sources, the Prophet Muhammad conducted a census when he first migrated to Medina from Mecca in order to understand the population makeup and its needs. Omar ibn al-Khattab, a notable leader in Islam, established a regular census to help determine how to effectively distribute resources throughout society.”

Why should young Muslim women of color care about the 2020 Census? 

“What many in our community may not realize is that the census impacts so many parts of our lives, which is even more apparent now during this pandemic. Not only does the census help determine how many representatives each state has in Congress, it determines how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated to states and communities for emergency and disaster programs, health care services, nutrition programs, and other critical services that so many of us are relying upon at this difficult time. When you think about women of faith who are motivated to serve their communities, you think about them helping the poor, the needy, and the disenfranchised.  The census has a direct impact on the lives of these populations. When people are not counted in the census, it is less likely that these resources are available in times of need.

Muslims are currently getting ready to observe the holy month of Ramadan, a month where Muslims are called upon to be even more of service to their neighbors. One easy and safe way to get a start on serving your community is by filling out the 2020 Census and making sure your neighbor also does the same. When you fill out the census, and remind others to do the same, you help to ensure your community is better prepared to respond to any disaster we may have to face in the future.”

What are some specific ways that participating would impact the poor, the needy, and the disenfranchised? 

“Results from the 2020 Census affect almost every aspect of one’s life – from your daily commute to your ability to feed your family.  For example, the census informs the amount of funding each community receives for buses, subways, and other public transportation. Census results help determine how much money is allocated for the Head Start program for young children and for grants that support teachers and special education. It also helps guide the Federal Pell Grant Program which provides grants to low-income college students. I know without this program in particular I would not have been able to go to college. The results also impact food assistance to needy families, small business development centers, housing vouchers, and family violence and prevention services.”

Why should we trust the government? What assurances do we have that our data is protected?

“I understand that there is fear and concern around privacy of data, but the truth is that your responses to the 2020 Census are safe, confidential, and protected by federal law, specifically under Title 13 of the U.S. Code.  Your answers can only be used to produce statistics. They cannot be used against you by any government agency or court in any way. Not by the CIA, not by the FBI, the local police, or ICE. Census Bureau employees are sworn for life to protect your personal information. I’ve taken that oath myself. Until the day I die, I am required to protect your data.”

Why are Arabs and African Americans historically under-counted communities? What are the challenges that make them hard to count?

“There can be many reasons why a particular community is a hard to count community, such as low proficiency in English, distrust of the government, and or general unawareness about the census and the impact it has on one’s community.”

Why didn’t Arabs get their own race category in the census? Our community organizations have been advocating for this change for years.

“The 2020 Census questionnaire does not have a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) category. That’s because the Census Bureau has only tested a MENA category as an ethnicity in a combined question format, not in a separate question. The Census Bureau will continue its extensive research on how to collect accurate race and ethnicity data across all surveys. The 2020 Census race question, however, has been improved this year to include examples of Middle Eastern and North African origin and with write-in areas to collect responses of MENA origin such as Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. The Census Bureau remains committed to researching our population and the best way to measure its diversity and we plan to consider additional research after the 2020 Census.”

What race category do you recommend Arabs to check off?

“The Census allows for each individual to self-identify their race. We don’t tell you what group to choose. You decide that for yourself.”

If a mixed race person selects “Black” and one or more other races, doesn’t that lead to confusion?

“No. If the best reflection of an individual’s experience is one race, then she should select that one race. But if the best reflection of her experience is more than one race, then she should select the races that she identifies herself with. It is important to encourage people in the Arab American and African American communities who are of mixed race to select those races that closely reflect how they experience life in America on a day-to-day basis.”

How will the Census Bureau record my race if I check more than one?

“The Census Bureau will put you into a category based on the race or races you select. For instance, if you select “Black”, you will be in that category. If you select “Black” and you also select “White,” you will be in a separate category entitled “Black, White” and will not be included in the total Black population. If you select “Black”, and “White”, and “Asian”, you will be in a category entitled “Black, White, Asian” and will not be included in the total Black population.” 

Can I assist someone, like my parents, in filling out the Census form?

“Yes. There’s no rule against helping someone fill out the Census form. You can also contact the Census Bureau for assistance at 1-866-872-6868, between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. EST, 7 days a week. The Census also provides guides in Arabic to help people fill out the form. You can find them  at

What if you are a college student temporarily displaced because school was closed due to  COVID-19? Where should you be counted?

“If you are a college student who normally lives in a dorm during the school year, your college is already working with us to count you. That means you don’t need to do anything — other than tell your parents not to include you in their response. If you are a college student who normally lives in an apartment or house off-campus – even if you aren’t living there right now — you or one of your roommates will need to respond for everyone living at that address. You can do so easily online at  In general, if you are living in a temporary location due to COVID-19, please count yourself at your usual address.”

What can we, as young Muslim women, do to help get the word out about the 2020 Census?

“Your voice matters a lot. You can help us get the word out by going to your social media platforms and encouraging your networks to respond to the 2020 Census. You can call or text your family and friends to see if they have responded, and direct them to the resources that can help them fill it out on Your generation can help make responding to the census a normal thing that we as a community do every 10 years to get our voices heard and our community’s needs met. You can make responding to the Census be seen as a civic duty and right that we take pride in as Americans, just like registering to vote.  Encouraging people to fill out the Census can also be an act of community service you can do this Ramadan.”