Public Opinion Data
From roughly 1985 to 1995, I traveled across the United States and spoke to a variety of Americans about Islamic history and culture. In order to evaluate the attitudes and prejudices of my various audiences, I asked them to participate in the following exercise before giving my presentation. I asked them to imagine and write down what words they associated with “Muslim,” “Islam,” “Arab,” or “Middle East.” After collecting nearly 5,000 sheets of responses, it was apparent that the overwhelming majority of the words carried negative, pejorative, or insulting connotations. Here are some examples: aggressive, angry, barbaric, cruel, extremists, fanatic, greedy, hate, holy war, killers, mistreat women, oil, oppressive, patriarchal, radical, sleazy, subservient females, terrorist, uncivilized, unclean, unstable, violent, warlike, zealots.
Public opinion research data from the same period were consistent with my personal findings. In 1991, the National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC) conducted a survey for the American Jewish Committee designed to assess American attitudes toward Jews. As part of its study, NORC asked participants to classify 58 ethnic, national, and religious groups according to perceived social standing. A fictional ethnicity, “Wisians,” was inserted in the list to function as a control group. In the end, the average rank of Wisians was 45, ahead of Arabs (47) and Iranians (57). Following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the American Muslim Council and the Zogby Group asked 1,000 adults about their feelings toward Muslims. The results of their poll revealed that 36% of the respondents viewed Muslims “unfavorably,” while 23% viewed them “favorably.” The data also revealed that a plurality of Americans (43%) agreed with statements suggesting that Muslims are predisposed to religious fanaticism. The following year, the National Conference released polling data indicating that of 3,000 Americans surveyed, 40% believed Islam condones terrorism, 47% believed that Muslims are anti-American, and 62% believed that Muslim men oppress women. Based on this information, it should come as no surprise that in 1995 the American media and American law enforcement agencies, despite a lack of evidence, did not challenge and in some cases perpetuated the idea that the Oklahoma City bombers were most likely “Middle Eastern,” resulting in a reported 220 acts of harassment and hate crimes directed at American Muslims.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perceptions of the Middle East and larger Muslim world have scarcely improved. In a 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 46% of Americans expressed an “unfavorable” attitude toward Islam, up from 24% in 2002. Forty-five percent of respondents said Islam does not “teach respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims,” up from 22% in 2002, and 33% percent agreed with the statement that Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, up from 14% in 2002. The Pew Global Attitudes Project reported in 2006 that 69% of Americans believe Islam is “not respectful of women.” In 2007, The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion on Public Life published a report declaring, “Public Expresses Mixed View of Islam, Mormonism.” According to this report, 43% of Americans said they had a “favorable” opinion of Muslims, while 35% expressed a “negative view.” In 2004, these numbers were 48% and 32% respectively. Respondents viewed American Muslims more positively than non-American Muslims, 53% - 43%. Some respondents expressed belief in an inherent link between Islam and violence, with 45% saying Islam is more likely than other religious traditions to foster violence. This report also indicated that higher education is not necessarily an antidote to negative stereotyping of Muslims. In 2003, 28% percent of college graduates said Islam is more likely than other religious traditions to promote violence, whereas in 2005, 45% of college graduates said Islam is more likely to promote violence, an increase of 17 points in approximately 2 years.
The ramifications of these negative perceptions of Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East are not without consequence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in its 2008 annual report on the status of Muslim civil liberties in the United States calculated a total of 2,652 civil rights complaints in the 2007 calendar year. This total is a significant increase from the 366 civil rights complaints previously registered with CAIR in a year-long period spanning from 1999 to 2000. However, the people victimized by these sorts of stereotypes and associations are not exclusively Muslim. Verbal abuse, physical molestation, and murder have visited the American Sikh community, motivated partially by a misunderstood identification of Sikh men and women as Muslim and Middle-Eastern. The most notorious crime occurred on September 15, 2001, a mere four days following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, when Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was gunned down in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona.
“American Notes: Ethnicity.” TimeMagazine. 20 January 1992. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Bias Thrives in a Vacuum.” The New York Times. 8 January 1992. Link to resource (accessed August 10, 2010).
Gallup Center for Muslims Studies. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Muslim Americans: A National Portrait.” The Muslim West Facts Project - a partnership between Gallup and the Coexist Foundation. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Reports and Surveys.” Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Washington Post - ABC News Poll.” The Washington Post. 6 March 2006. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History and of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, The University of Chicago
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. In one sentence summarize the trend in America’s perception of Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East. Using your own knowledge of American culture, what are some explanations for that trend?