Polls on Americans’ attitudes towards Islam show surprising results

Sunday 24/07/2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry attends an interfaith iftar reception in Sterling, Virginia, on June 20, 2016.

Washington - Polls about Americans’ views on Islam and Mus­lims indicate a sympathy that is sometimes over­looked by politics and harsh rhetoric, according to one of the country’s most influential poll­sters.
“I’m not as pessimistic as many people are,” Shibley Telhami said from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and de­velopment. “For example, if you look at the media focus, say with the Nice story, you’ll find [former House speaker Newt] Gingrich say­ing that we should deport anyone who believes in sharia. You get the impression that he’s representing the views of the American public but that’s not what the polls show.”
Telhami was referring to a poll he conducted measuring the public’s favourability towards Muslims and Islam before and after the June 12th Orlando attack in which a gunman, who pledged allegiance to the Is­lamic State (ISIS), killed 49 people at a gay nightclub. The results are surprising in that they indicate a rise in favourability towards Mus­lims (58% to 62%) and towards Is­lam (42% to 44%) among respond­ents after the attack despite heated anti-Muslim rhetoric by some poli­ticians.
“It’s interesting and heartening. A sort of backlash against the Mus­lim backlash,” said Telhami.
The poll was conducted by Niel­son and funded by the University of Maryland.
Telhami, who has written sev­eral books, including The Stakes: America and the Middle East and The World through Arab Eyes, said the American public appears to have come to associate anti-Muslim rhetoric with partisanship.
“Because GOP candidates have used the issue of Islam and violence as a political weapon against their Democratic opponents and Presi­dent Barack Obama, the empha­sised link between Islam and vio­lence has become associated with GOP candidates, especially Donald Trump,” Telhami wrote recently in Politico.
The poll results show this parti­san division regarding Islam and Muslims with 55% of Republican re­spondents saying they have an un­favourable view of the Muslim peo­ple (the figure went up to 57% after the Orlando shootings). Some 63% respondents who said they were supporters of Republican presiden­tial nominee Donald Trump said they had an unfavourable view of Muslims, with the percentage rising to 66% after the Orlando shootings. More than three-quarters of Repub­licans and more than 80% of Trump supporters asked told pollsters they view Islam unfavourably.
By contrast, 72% of Democratic respondents reported a favourable view of Muslims. This rose to 79% after the Orlando attack.
Telhami, who has been polling on these issues for more than 25 years, said anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States rose shortly after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and plateaued close to the 2012 election in which Obama was re-elected president. It was not until late 2015, when presidential politi­cal campaigning began in earnest with Islamic extremism at the fore­front, that favourable views of Mus­lims and Islam began to rise.
This presidential election sheds light on a deeply polarised public on virtually every issue. When it comes to the Middle East, the di­vide is perhaps at its starkest with the Arab-Israeli issue at heart. Tel­hami said very little has changed in the past 25 years overall in the minds of Americans, except that polarisation is more apparent along partisan lines.
“Since the 1990s, somewhere be­tween two-thirds and three-quar­ters of Americans said they wanted the US to lean towards neither Is­rael nor Palestine in negotiations,” he said. He added that those who expressed any bias expressed it overwhelmingly in favour of Israel.
“That hasn’t changed a lot,” he said.
“But what has changed is when you asked that question 20 years ago there was little gap between Democrats and Republicans. What has happened in America in the past 25 years is that Republicans have become more pro-Israel, the majority of them want to lean to­wards Israel than towards neither side. Democrats? Only 15% say they want to lean towards Israel,” he said.
Telhami, who was born to Pal­estinian parents in Israel, said his personal identity often gives him special insight into the sensitive is­sues that he tackles in public opin­ion polls.
“As an Arab American I’m very sensitive both to the Arab region and to here. And as an American and a scholar, I’ve developed a way that allows my background to pre­sent me with insights rather than it being a detriment to analysis,” he said. “We have enough madness in discourse.”