Polls on Americans’ attitudes towards Islam show surprising results
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.”