Muslim Americans: Fact vs. Fiction

New Poll Dispels Myths About Muslim Americans

A new Gallup poll finds that Muslim Americans are less inclined to violence and more inclined to acceptance of other groups than other religions, writes Sally Steenland.

Fordson High School basketball player Fatima Kobeissi, left and teammate Hyatt Bakri wait before the basketball game against Willow Run in Dearborn, Michigan. (AP/Carlos Osorio)
Fordson High School basketball player Fatima Kobeissi, left and teammate Hyatt Bakri wait before the basketball game against Willow Run in Dearborn, Michigan. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

News flash: Muslims are the most optimistic religious group in America right now. They are more likely than other religious groups to be satisfied with their lives and to see their standard of living improving. In terms of attitudes toward violent extremism, Muslim Americans are the least likely of all major religious groups to say that attacks on civilians are justifiable. And more than 9 out of 10 Muslim Americans say they are loyal to this country.

If you have colleagues and friends who are Muslim American, these findings from a new Gallup poll are probably not surprising. But if you know Muslim Americans only through the skewed lens of the media, you might be shocked. That’s because there is a huge gap between the way Muslim Americans—and their religion, Islam—are seen in the media and who they really are.

In the media—and in resulting public perceptions—Muslims tend to be default, all-purpose villains. They are innately suspect, hostile to democracy, and the likely perpetrators of terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. From the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to the Norway bombing this July, many pundits and reporters were quick to say that Muslims did it, even before the facts were in.

Of course, the facts turned out to be quite different. In both Oklahoma City and Norway, the attackers were white Christian men. Anders Breivik, the Norway bomber, claimed his actions, though “gruesome,” were necessary to save the “Christian” nation of Norway from “Muslimization.”

Breivik argued his case in a 1,500-page manifesto that cited anti-Muslim bigots in America. Robert Spencer, who co-founded Stop Islamization of America, showed up 162 times. Pamela Geller, who led the fight last summer against a proposed Muslim cultural center several blocks from Ground Zero, showed up 12 times.

Spencer has called Islam “the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers.” And Geller has compared Muslims to Nazis, claiming that “Muslim terrorists were practicing pure Islam.”

Now listen to the facts—particularly to the Gallup poll finding about attitudes of religious groups toward extremist attacks on civilians. Gallup found that Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and those with no religion were more likely than Muslims to say that attacks on civilians were sometimes justified.

And yet the public debate too often presupposes a Muslim inclination toward violence and a Christian inclination toward peace. The truth is that no religion can be so narrowly defined. Religion is not monolithic, and it is not static. Instead, it is dynamic and diverse. Violent passages are found in both the Koran and in the Bible. Those claiming religious truth to elevate their violent cause show up in every religious tradition.

Here are a few more facts from the Gallup poll:

  • Muslim Americans who attend religious services at least once a week have higher levels of civic engagement and report less stress and anger than Muslim Americans who attend services less frequently.
  • Muslim Americans have the most confidence of all religious groups that our country’s elections are honest. They have less confidence, however, than other groups in the FBI and military—both of which have been associated with the “war on terror” after 9/11 that affected Muslim communities.
  • Forty-eight percent of Muslim Americans have experienced religious or racial discrimination during the past year. This is more than twice as much as other religious groups, except for Mormons (31 percent). Muslim women, in particular, are more likely than Muslim men to say they feel disrespected.
  • Muslim Americans are significantly younger than members of other religious groups, and they are less likely to be registered to vote. This is in keeping with trends showing that younger people have lower voting rates.
  • Muslim Americans are among the most tolerant of all religious groups, showing acceptance toward other faiths while being loyal to their own. Ninety-two percent expressed tolerance and/or positive views of other faiths, a number matched only by Mormons.

Although Gallup didn’t explicitly measure the gap between public perception and actual reality when it comes to Muslim Americans, it’s clear that the dissonance is dizzying—and dangerous. Any time a group of Americans is singled out and stigmatized because of their religion, we are all harmed.

And it’s not just religious liberty, one of our most precious values, that is violated. It’s also our national security, which is weakened when rants against Muslim Americans divert law enforcement efforts from real threats and give credence to global terrorists who claim that America, in fact, hates Muslims and Islam.

Reality is worth remembering as we head into a vitriolic election season—one that will most likely encompass a large, unhealthy fact-free zone. And it’s worth remembering some of these facts about Muslim Americans—and repeating them in conversations that veer into Islamophobic rants. Doing so will accomplish two goals. First, you’ll debunk biased claims. And second, you’ll shift to the real story, which is worth telling.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative