We Americans should be ashamed! What an intolerant, bigoted, hateful lot we are! Or so we are being told by our political and media elites. Lawrence Wright, in The New Yorker – yes, The New Yorker — announces: “Culture wars are currently being waged against Muslim Americans across the country.” Are they really? The crowds in Kandahar and Karachi will be most interested to hear that.
Even on Fox – yes, Fox – Chris Wallace talked last weekend of “growing anti-Islamic feeling in this country.” Excuse me, but where’s the evidence?
In recent days, we’ve been told that it’s in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll showing 49 percent of respondents holding an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam. At first glance that does seem disturbing. But take the trouble to actually examine the poll and a very different picture emerges.
First: Recognize that holding an unfavorable opinion of Islam is not the same as holding an unfavorable opinion of Muslims. Tolerance does not require that you favorably regard others’ beliefs. It requires only that you take a live-and-let-live attitude in regard to others — even if they hold beliefs you do not share (for example, regarding women’s rights, homosexuals’ rights, the rights of minorities in Muslim-majority countries, whether amputation and stoning should be used as punishments, and whether those who convert from Islam to another religion deserve execution).
Consider this, too: How many Muslims in Muslim-majority countries do you think have a “favorable” opinion of Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism? How many liberals have a “favorable” view of conservatism — or vice versa?
Second: Immediately after the 9/11/01 attacks, the Post/ABC poll found 39 percent of respondents saying they had an unfavorable opinion of Islam — ten points below where it is now. The percentage actually fell from there: By June of 2002, after President Bush and other opinion leaders reassured people that Islam was a “religion of peace” that al-Qaeda was perverting, the figure dropped to just 24 percent. But soon the percentage began to climb. By 2006 it was at 46 percent — about where it is today.
So what happened between 2002 and 2006 to change how people viewed Islam? Well, scores of additional terrorist attacks including the August 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the July 2005 suicide bombings in London, and the October 2005 suicide bombings in Bali. Also multiple suicide bombings in Iraq. Also: the videotaped beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg.
Such atrocities — all carried out in the name of Islam — may have tarnished the Islamic brand, may have caused some people to revise their opinion of Islam from “favorable” to “unfavorable.” You may agree or disagree — but is arriving at that conclusion really an expression of hatred?
Okay, you say, but what explains the rise since then? The fact is an uptick from 46 percent in 2006 to 49 percent today is within the poll’s margin of error — meaning it’s not clear there has been any change at all over the past four years.
And if there has been, perhaps that might have something to do with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the massacre at Fort Hood, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and the attempted Christmas Day bombing, Faisal Shahzad and the attempted Times Square bombing, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was thought to be preaching peace at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in a Washington, D.C., suburb but who is now linked by U.S. intelligence to all of the above and to al-Qaeda as well. And then, of course, there have been the many incendiary pronouncements and provocative gestures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran (emphasis added).
Should all Muslims be held responsible for what these individuals have said and done? Of course not. But it has not gone unnoticed that there have been no mass demonstrations in the capitals of what we now routinely call “the Muslim world” to protest jihadism — no crowds shouting: “Not in my name! Not in the name of my religion!” What we’ve seen instead: Protesters carrying signs saying, “Behead those who insult Islam!”
With this as context, surely it is not only logical but inevitable that some people will conclude that perhaps there is a problem within Islam — and maybe even with Islam. In the wake of the 9/11/01 attacks, Irshad Manji, the courageous Muslim reformer, titled her groundbreaking book “The Trouble With Islam Today.” To avoid being accused of Islamophobia, should she have called it instead “The Trouble With Americans Today”?
Additional data undercuts the notion that anti-Islamic fever is rising. The Post/ABC poll also asked this question: “Thinking of mainstream Islam, do you think mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, or is it a peaceful religion?”
A solid majority, 54 percent, said they think “mainstream Islam” is a “peaceful religion.” Only 31 percent said they think it “encourages violence” — despite the many Islamic clerics around the world encouraging violence on the basis of passages in the Koran that might be perceived as encouraging violence (e.g. “behead the unbeliever”).
Here’s how I interpret these poll numbers: Most Americans are struggling to understand what separates — and what links — Islam, Islamism, and jihadism. Most do not blame average Muslims for the fact that there are Islamic regimes, movements, and groups vowing to murder their children. In other words: Most Americans are astonishingly tolerant.
Needless to say, this is not the story being told by the mainstream media. The narrative they are pushing was expressed skillfully in a front-page, above-the-fold story in the Washington Post this weekend. This “news” story emphasized only the 49 percent that hold “unfavorable” opinions of Islam. It omitted the fact that this figure has changed little if at all over the past four years. It neglected to mention, too, that 54 percent continue to view “mainstream Islam” as “peaceful.”
Such selective use of facts provided support for this thesis: that President Obama “has found himself confronting rising anti-Islamic sentiment at odds with his message of religious tolerance.”
To make sure readers absorbed the spin, the story asserted a second time that public opinion “is moving against Islam,” and then referred, again, to an “increasingly anti-Islamic public” — all on the basis of a poll that, as I believe I’ve established, demonstrates no such thing.
The story went on to suggest that while Obama, acting on principle, strives to promote tolerance, Republicans, seeking partisan benefit, “have tapped into” the “anti-Islamic” trend, in particular “during the debate over the Islamic center” planned for near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
But here, too, if you actually read the Post/ABC poll you’ll see that the truth is not so simple: Sixty-six percent of respondents said they think the Islamic center “should not be built” near the site of the former World Trade Center. But, of those, 82 percent specify that they do not oppose Muslim community centers in general — only at “this location.”
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wants to build a $100 million, 15-story Islamic center a stone’s throw from where self-proclaimed Islamic “martyrs” murdered thousands. Is it really so clear that those who question Rauf’s goals and financing are motivated by “racism” and “anti-Muslim bigotry” — as signs carried by demonstrators in New York on Saturday charged?
The Post article quotes “a senior administration official” lamenting: “‘What’s most distressing is when you see it picked up by mainstream political figures,’ referring to the stand toward American Muslims taken by prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who have argued against the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.” The senior administration official “declined to be named in order to speak candidly on a sensitive subject.” Excuse me, but when did it become “sensitive” for an official of any administration to criticize members of the opposition? Indeed, when did it become sensitive for anyone to criticize Gingrich and Palin?
One other question posed by the Post/ABC poll: Respondents were asked to “honestly” assess themselves: “Would you say that you have at least some feelings of prejudice against Muslims?” Seventy-one percent said they do not.
But what do they know? If they’re so smart, why are they answering pollsters’ questions? Why aren’t they on TV and in the newspapers telling Americans what bigots they are, based on blatantly cherry-picked polling results?
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.