'Ignorance is the greatest enemy'
Recent research reveals that Islam elicits the most negative reactions of all religions in the United States. Gihan Shahine asks why
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Obama and Hillary Clinton in Sultan Hassan Mosque during last year's visit to Egypt
Less than a year ago, US President Barack Obama raised hope among the world's Muslims, who had felt wronged and bullied under the outgoing Bush administration, when he stood in Cairo University and declared his respect for Muslim religion and culture. Yet, almost a year to the day later and also at Cairo University, the US-based Gallup research organisation has revealed that Islam elicits the most negative views of all other faiths among US citizens.
In a survey entitled "Religious Perceptions in America with an In-Depth Analysis of US Attitudes towards Muslims and Islam", Gallup examined Americans' self-reported opinions and levels of prejudice towards followers of the world's four major religions, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with a special focus on Islam.
According to Mohamed Younis, a senior analyst at the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies in Washington that carried out the study, while "President Obama's inaugural address stressed his intention to engage the Muslim world, it also stressed that such engagement had to occur not only on the diplomatic level but also on the citizen-to- citizen level."
In an e-mail interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Younis said that this effort "has been dubbed by some as the 'Kansas to Cairo Initiative', and we wanted to know, one year on, how Americans viewed Islam and Muslims, as well as examine some of the perceptions on Muslim beliefs and attitudes."
Worryingly, the survey found that Islam was the most negatively viewed religion in the US, though those surveyed tended to have greater negative opinions of Islam as a religion than of Muslims as people. More than half of the Americans surveyed, or 53 per cent, told the Gallup poll that "their opinion of the faith is either 'not too favourable' (22 per cent) or 'not favourable at all' (31 per cent)," Younis said.
According to Younis, the poll found that "Americans are more than twice as likely to express negative feelings about Muslims as they are about Buddhists, Christians or Jews. 43 per cent of Americans self-report feeling at least 'some prejudice', with nine per cent expressing 'a great deal of prejudice' against Muslims," he said.
However, an important finding of the survey was the fact that one reason why Islam is negatively perceived in the US is a lack of knowledge about Islam. Sadly, the numerous efforts by Muslim organisations in the US and worldwide seem to have failed effectively to explain Islam to Americans.
The Gallup study showed that 40 per cent of Americans admit to having very little knowledge about Islam, and 23 per cent say they know practically nothing about the faith. "Some of the most interesting findings were that those with little knowledge of Islam and Muslims were actually more likely to say that they feel no prejudice whatsoever towards Muslims," Younis noted, "while other variables, such as knowing the name of Islam's Prophet, made respondents actually more likely to self-report a great deal of prejudice."
"These and other findings throughout the study imply that prejudice against Muslims among Americans is something that is learned, as a result of particular information they receive about Islam, and not the default mode of American opinion, as those with little knowledge about Islam and Muslims express no prejudice," he said.
Commenting on the findings of the Gallup survey, Fadel Suleiman, director of the Cairo-based Bridges Foundation, a body that specialises in presenting Islam to non-Muslims, argued that the failure of many Muslims to pass on a true image of Islam was largely due to "intense media propaganda against Islam and Muslims, the underdevelopment of many countries in the Muslim world, and the ignorance of many Americans of world religions and cultures, especially Islam."
Yet, efforts made to introduce Islam to Americans "were also very small when compared to efforts made to tarnish it," Suleiman said. "Take the distribution of the film Obsession, for example, which saw 28 million DVDs being distributed to the readers of American newspapers in seven swing states at a cost of some $60 million. This came at a time when one of the world's most important financial crises was beginning, showing that for some people Islam is very much worth attacking even at very considerable cost."
In a counter-campaign, Suleiman told the Weekly that "Muslim organisations distributed 40,000 DVDs of The Fog Is Lifting, a documentary providing information about Islam. But there is a huge difference between 28 million copies and 40,000, and this difference shows that for some Muslims either Islam is not worth defending, or that God can be trusted to protect it."
Suleiman insisted that Muslim organisations were not the only ones to blame, adding that "Islam will never be well explained to the West as long as many Muslim countries remain totalitarian states and dictatorships. The Quran states that 'Allah will not change the status of any people until they change their own status,'" he said.
The Gallup survey found that the fact that Muslims were not well viewed by many Americans could be due to American misconceptions about what Muslims around the world believe. "Majorities of Americans disagree with the statements that most Muslims are accepting of other religions (66 per cent) and that Christians' and Muslims' religious beliefs are basically the same (68 per cent)," the study said.
Whereas 70 per cent of American respondents agreed that Muslims want peace, more than one in four disagreed. About eight in 10 Americans (78 per cent) disagreed that most Muslims accept homosexuals, while 47 per cent disagreed with the statement that most Muslims around the world are tolerant of others from different races. Respondents who disagreed with the statement that most Muslims around the world want peace and who viewed Muslims as intolerant were more than twice as likely to express "a great deal" of prejudice against Muslims, according to the report.
Of all the negative American perceptions of Muslims revealed in the Gallup survey, one of the most commonly held regarded gender inequality. According to the report, 81 per cent of the American public disagrees with the statement that most Muslims believe women and men should have equal rights. The study also found a strong relationship between American perceptions about Muslims' attitudes towards gender equality and prejudice towards the religion. Americans who agreed that most Muslims believe in equal rights for women and agreed that most Muslims want peace were more than twice as likely to report feeling no prejudice towards Muslims, the study said.
Needless to say, the misconceptions reported in the Gallup poll are not reflected in the views of Muslims themselves, as reported in other Gallup surveys. Findings from surveys conducted in more than 35 predominantly Muslim countries have revealed that majorities of respondents in most of these countries agree that women and men should have equal legal rights.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, a country known for its strict enforcement of its version of Islam, 86 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men questioned in Gallup surveys agreed that both sexes should have equal legal rights. In Iran and Egypt, the majorities of respondents in Gallup surveys expressed similarly high levels of support for equal legal rights.
The wide gap between the reality of Muslim societies and the understanding of them in the United States is largely the result of negative media coverage of issues pertaining to Islam and Muslims in the West, according to Gallup, since "personal knowledge of the [Muslim] faith is limited to a relatively narrow segment of the American public."
Senior analyst and director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies Dalia Mogahed deplored the fact that "though Muslim-Americans are positively involved in the fabric of American life, it's difficult to see that in the light of the media coverage of things like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the troubles in Pakistan." Mogahed was also disheartened by the results of the Gallup study because "there has been so much hard work done by Muslim-Americans and Muslims worldwide to inform the non- Muslim public about the beauty of Islam."
In an interview with the newspaper Arab News, she said that "when the public tide can be turned towards having a positive view of Islam, that will help negate all the prejudices."
However, until that happens Islam will remain "not only the religion that is the most frequently mentioned in television news in the United States, but also [the one of which] a significant share of this coverage is negative." This was the conclusion of a study by Media Tenor, a US media research company, carried out between January and August 2009 during Obama's first months in office.
One main conclusion of the Media Tenor study was that the tone of statements made about Islam was twice as likely to be negative as statements made about Christianity on US television news. More than eight years after the 9/11 attacks on the US, two-thirds of television coverage about Islam in the United States still associate Muslims with extremism, the study found.
The US media has also been guilty of spreading misconceptions about gender inequality. "The US media often portrays Muslim women as victims, which may explain why American perceptions of their inferior status in Muslim societies are so widespread," the report said. "In a survey of photographs of Muslims in the American press, nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the women were depicted in 'passive' capacities, compared with less than one-sixth (15 per cent) of the men. In photographs of the Middle East, the role of victim is most frequently cast for women. Women were six times (42 per cent) more likely to be portrayed as victims than men (seven per cent)."
According to Suleiman, ignorance of Islam on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike is one of the greatest enemies and a major factor behind the spread of such misconceptions. "We should deal with the misconceptions within our own minds first, and then we should deal with those in the minds of non-Muslims," he said. "Muslim women voted more than 14 centuries ago in the parliament of the Prophet Mohamed, while American non-Muslim women started to vote fewer than 90 years ago. The biggest obstacle in the way of removing ignorance is to admit it. People do not admit their ignorance, thinking that this is an insult. However, ignorance is not due to a lack of intelligence, but is rather due to a lack of information."
Suleiman said that Muslims living in the West "can still introduce Islam in their countries, while taking into consideration that their biggest challenge is to differentiate between religion and culture." Islam is the only religion in the world that is not named after an individual (unlike Christianity and Buddhism), or after a tribe or group of people (unlike Judaism), or after any geographical region (unlike Hinduism). "This makes Islam suitable for the whole world, from Eskimos to Amazons. Islam is like water, which is suitable for everyone because it doesn't have a colour, a taste or a smell. For this reason, Islam should be kept as clear and as pure as water," Suleiman said.
According to the Gallup report, knowing individual Muslims was often not enough to counter the negative effects of the media among Americans or to refute misconceptions about Islam. Though more than half of respondents in the survey said that they knew someone who was Muslim, this did not in itself deter them from having negative attitudes towards Islam.
According to Mogahed, "while not knowing a Muslim is significant in falling into that extremely prejudiced group, knowing a Muslim is not enough to keep someone from not being prejudiced." Americans tend to separate an individual from a group, she added. "We found that it's possible to know someone in a group and make them the exception, to say, 'sure, so- and-so is a good Muslim, but most Muslims are not like him.'"
However, Suleiman for one remains undaunted in the face of the challenges that the Gallup report has indicated. "If a non-Muslim knows one good Muslim, then he or she may think that this Muslim is an exception to the rule. However, if a non-Muslim knows 10 Muslims, most of whom are good neighbours, co- workers, teachers, etc., he or she will definitely think differently about Muslims."
Religious enlightenment, or daawa, should start after bridges have been built between Muslim and non-Muslim people, Suleiman said, adding that "the best daawa is to see people who really apply what they say." He quoted a verse from the Quran in support, which blames Muslims for hypocritical attitudes, saying "O you who believe, why do you say what you do not do, surely among the most hated by Allah is that you say what you do not do."
A further finding of the Gallup survey had to do with the relationship between American prejudices towards Muslims and those reported towards Jews. The study found that respondents who reported "a great deal" of prejudice towards Jews were about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice towards Muslims. Those who reported feeling no prejudice towards Jews were more than 11 times as likely to report feeling the same about Muslims.
While the survey did not explain the link between feeling "a great deal" of prejudice towards Jews and feeling the same about Muslims, Mogahed suggests that activists working against the two types of prejudice should perhaps "form a closer alliance" to study "bias against both together... to understand the dynamic."
For his part, Suleiman speculated that those expressing prejudices towards both Muslims and Jews "are either racists who hate any other race but their own, or people who are intolerant of any other culture or tradition than their own. Muslims and Jews have different traditions from Christian traditions. Both have dietary restrictions, both are offended by the Christian belief in the crucifixion of Jesus, even though the Islamic view of Jesus as one of the mightiest prophets of God is completely different from the Jewish view."
The Gallup report also said that "Americans who say they attend religious services more than once a week are more than twice as likely to say they feel no prejudice towards Muslims, countering popular assumptions that religious devotion contributes to having negative opinions about people of another faith." For Mogahed, this indicated that "people who are more religious generally consider prejudice a moral evil and often have respect for the devout of other faiths."
The question remains of how this recent Gallup survey can be instrumental in improving the image of Islam and Muslims, particularly in the United States. Suleiman suggests that it "should be studied very carefully by Muslims all over the world and especially in the US, who may benefit from it in their daawa work."
According to Younis, the study has received a lot of attention both in the US and elsewhere. "In the MidEast, for example, many audiences I've spoken with have been particularly surprised by the report's finding that personally knowing a Muslim is not as important statistically, when examining prejudice, as having a negative view of Islam. This finding has sparked discussion in Cairo about what the Muslim world, in cooperation with Muslim-Americans, can do in providing more accurate information on Islam to the American public," he told the Weekly.
In the US itself, there has been considerable interest in the report's findings, Younis said, particularly those regarding the levels of self- reported prejudice against Muslims compared to followers of other major world religions. "The findings of the report were also shared with several working groups of high-level policymakers, religious leaders and academics from the US and all over the Muslim world at the Brookings US-Islamic world forum in Doha recently," he added.