American Views of Islam: Bigotry and Reality
A new ABC News-Washington Post poll reveals that many Americans hold negative views of Islam, a trend that has been growing since 9/11.
As the war in Iraq grinds into its fourth year, a growing proportion of Americans are expressing unfavorable views of Islam, and a majority now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The poll found that nearly half of Americans — 46 percent — have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.
[Update: I missed this subtle phrase on the initial read-through: “when Muslims were often targeted for violence.” Even in the post-9/11 frenzy, the attacks were incredibly rare. Certainly, nothing in comparison to the Muslim violence over cartoons the world has recently witnessed.]
A summary graphic gives the gist of the poll:
That 43 percent have a favorable view of Islam given the events of the past decade or so is, frankly, amazing. I can understand people taking the position that they are neutral toward Islam and that the radicals who commit violence in the name of Islam are perverting the faith. But to actually have a positive view is interesting. Based on what, one wonders? Ditto the majority view that Islam is a peaceful religion.
That only 58 percent thinks that “there are more violent extremists within Islam” than other religions, too, is stunning. What percentage of the terrorist attacks over the last quarter century or so have been committed by Muslims?
Regardless, the Claudia Deane and Darryl Fears use this front page piece on the poll to paint Americans as bigots.
James J. Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said he is not surprised by the poll’s results. Politicians, authors and media commentators have demonized the Arab world since 2001, he said. “The intensity has not abated and remains a vein that’s very near the surface, ready to be tapped at any moment,” Zogby said. “Members of Congress have been exploiting this over the ports issue. Radio commentators have been talking about it nonstop.”
While I agree that fear of Arabs has been exploited by politicians, it is hardly a function of bad P.R. A sizable number of Arabs have organized themselves to kill Americans and other Westerners and have been doing so for years. Al Qaeda is primarily Arab and entirely Muslim, after all.
Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, agreed, saying Americans “have been given the message to respond this way by the American political elite, mass media and by select special interests.” Cole said he was shocked when a radio talk show host asked him if Islamic extremists would set off a nuclear bomb in the United States in the next six months. “It was ridiculous. I think anti-Arab racism and profiling has become respectable,” he said.
It is logistically unlikely that Islamic extremists will acquire the capability to set off a nuclear device in the United States that soon. Still, the notion that it might happen is hardly “anti-Arab racism.” Osama bin Laden has declared war against the United States, publically stated that he is working toward gaining nuclear capability, and has been working toward that goal. Most homeland security experts think it only a matter of when, not if, it will happen.
Ronald Stockton, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan at Dearborn who helped conduct a study of Arabs in the Detroit area and on views of them held by non-Arabs, said an exceptionally high percentage of non-Muslims feels the media depicts Arabs unfairly, yet still holds negative opinions. “You’re getting a constant drumbeat of negative information about Islam,” he said.
But that drumbeat is coming from the Islamists themselves. It is they who kidnap people and saw off their heads on camera and post the videos on the Internet. It is they who strap bombs to their children and blow up innocents waiting in line. It is they who hijacked four airplanes and rammed three of them into American landmarks. It is they who are rioting all over the world, murdering people and setting things afire because of some cartoons published in a newspaper.
Michael Franc, vice president of government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the survey responses “seems to me to be a real backlash against Islam” and that congressional leaders do not help the problem by sometimes using language that links all Muslims with extremists.
That’s almost certainly true. Politicians often play to the ignorance of voters rather than trying to educate them. Doing the former is usually more rewarding.
Similarly, it is surely the case that the terrorists and other radicals are a small minority of all Arabs, let alone all Muslims. Most Arabs and most Muslims, like most people of every ethnicity and religion, are decent folks who want to live in peace and make things a little better for themselves and their families. That does not make fear Islamist terrorists irrational.