Survey shows US Muslims’ complex feelings about their own community

White evangelicals were more likely to say they approve of “discriminatory policies targeting Muslims.”
Sunday 20/05/2018
A woman wears an American flag for a headscarf as she participates in the '#NoMuslimBanEver' rally in downtown Los Angeles, California last year. (AFP)
A woman wears an American flag for a headscarf as she participates in the '#NoMuslimBanEver' rally in downtown Los Angeles, California last year. (AFP)

Being a Muslim in America since 9/11 has not been easy; however, a new survey indicates that most American respondents disapprove of politicians’ negative comments about Muslims and say such statements are harmful to the United States.

The survey, by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), interviewed Americans from various faith communities to gather their views on American Muslims.

The two organisations created an Islamophobia Index, awarding points based on anti-Islamic views and statements that faith groups have made about American Muslims. White Christian evangelicals scored highest on the index. This is worrisome for Muslims in America. White Christian evangelicals are among US President Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters and one of the groups he tries to please the most.

Yet the survey’s most astonishing finding may have been American Muslims’ opinion of themselves. American-Muslim respondents, more than any other group, agreed with the statement that their faith community is prone to negative behaviour.

Muslim respondents were one of the two top groups determined to most agree with the statement: “Most Muslims living in the United States are more prone to violence.” A total of 20% of the Muslims surveyed answered “yes.” This was just a bit lower than the 23% of evangelicals asked who said American Muslims are prone to violence. Only 15% of Jews and 7% of Americans with no religious affiliation expressed the same opinion.

The survey said that Muslims were the faith group most likely to agree with the following statement: “When I hear that a member of my faith community committed an act of violence, I feel personally ashamed.”

However, American Muslims, more than any other group in the survey, said they disagreed with the use of violence by the military against citizens. Their response differed noticeably from the general public, as 71% of Muslim respondents said this kind of military action was never justified, compared to 42% of the general public.

The Bridge Initiative pointed out that these findings mirror those of last year’s Pew study, which said American Muslims were overwhelmingly of the opinion that military violence can never be justified and Muslims were slightly less inclined than the general American public to agree with the statement that violence by an individual or a group can “often” or “sometimes” be justified to target civilians.

So why do Muslims, who overwhelmingly reject violence, say their community is “prone to violence”? The report’s authors, Youssef Chouhoud and Dalia Mogahed, said it is partly because of US media portrayals. The mostly negative portrayal of Muslims affects Muslims’ perceptions of themselves as much as it does other Americans.

As the authors noted that the ISPU report “Equal Treatment?: Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States” stated that someone “perceived to be Muslim accused of a terror plot will receive seven-and-a-half times the media coverage as someone not perceived to be Muslim… A 2015 study conducted by Media Tenor found that the ‘protagonists,’ i.e., individuals portrayed as representing Islam, were most often armed militants, whereas those representing other faiths were religious leaders.”

Little wonder then that Muslims have internalised these violent identities, even if they are not based in reality, and frequently feel ashamed of their community. This is where the concern about the group with the strongest Islamophobic reaction to them becomes a concern.

White evangelicals are a minority in the United States but represent a substantial section of Trump’s voter base. It should concern all Americans that the Bridge Initiative/ISPU survey said white evangelicals polled were more likely to say they approve of “discriminatory policies targeting Muslims,” which include banning their entry into the country and surveilling mosques; agree to “limiting democratic freedoms when the country is under threat,” which includes suspending checks and balances and limiting freedom of the press”; and “condone military and individual attacks on civilians.”

Sometimes it feels as if people with such views are waiting for another big attack on American soil by a terrorist group to have an excuse to round up Muslims just as happened with Japanese-Americans during the second world war.

Don’t think it could happen? The world has learned again and again that Trump will do the unexpected, regardless of what America’s allies think, particularly if it makes his base happy.