Fewer Americans view Muslims favorably, but the door is wide open to better understanding

Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

A new poll by Zogby Associates, a leading public opinion research firm, has both disquieting and encouraging news about Muslims. Disquieting is the fact that the percentage of Americans viewing Muslims favorably has declined over the past four years, from 35% in 2010 to 27% in 2014. This goes along with the finding that 42% approve of law enforcement profiling Muslims and Arabs (whom most Americans incorrectly assume to be Muslim) while only 34% are confident that an American Muslim could do the job of working in an important government post. Arabs and Muslims have the highest unfavorable and the lowest favorable ratings of any religious or ethnic group mentioned in the survey. (In addition to asking about attitudes toward Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and three varieties of Christians–Roman Catholics, born again, and Presbyterians–the survey also queried attitudes toward Chinese.)

The news is not all bad, however. The percentage of those holding an unfavorable view of Islam and Muslims has actually declined, from 55% in 2010 to 45% this year. This presumably means that those who do not know or are unsure of their response has grown from 10% to 28% over the past four years. In other words, a growing segment of the U.S. public feels they do not know enough about Islam and Muslims to make a judgment or have become more confused about the issue over the years.

In fact, the Zogby poll found that 52% of respondents feel they need to know more about Islam and Muslims, while only 36% feel they already know enough.

These figures are corroborated by the fact that many Americans show ignorance of such a basic question as the relationship of Arab ethnicity and Muslim religion. A plurality of 44% of Americans believes that the majority of Arab Americans are Muslim–in reality fewer than a third of Arab Americans adhere to Islam. Thirty percent believe that the majority of American Muslims are Arab–in reality less than one quarter of Muslims in this country are of Arab origin.

In line with a large body of research showing that personal acquaintance with members of a group reduces hostility toward and prejudice against that group, the survey found that those who know Muslims are more likely to have positive attitudes toward Muslims as a group: 36% of those who said they knew a Muslim viewed Muslims and Islam favorably, as opposed to only 19% of those who did not know any Muslims.

Attitudes toward both Muslims and Arabs are deeply entwined with politics. Republicans viewed both groups unfavorably in significantly greater numbers than did Democrats: 63% of Republicans viewed Muslims unfavorably and only 21% favorably, while the corresponding figures for Democrats were 33% and 35%. Similarly, 54% of Republicans viewed Arabs unfavorably and 28% favorably, while 30% of Democrats were unfavorable and 38% favorable. (In all cases, the remainder were presumably unsure or had no opinion.) Age likewise plays into attitudes: 38% of respondents aged 18 to 29 viewed Muslims favorably and 25% unfavorably, while the corresponding figures for those 65 and older were 58% unfavorable to 23% favorable. For Arabs, the ratings were 42% favorable to 38% unfavorable among the younger respondents and 32% favorable to 50% unfavorable among the older.

Though the decline in favorable views of Muslims over the past four years is disturbing (and not easily explicable, save perhaps by the growing political turmoil in the African and Middle Eastern Muslim world), the overall takeaway from these figures for organizations like ING should be encouraging. Two definite and one tentative conclusion emerge.

  • First is that there is great openness to and felt need for education about Muslims (and about Arabs and other ethnic groups professing that faith) that ING and other organizations provide; not only do a majority of Americans feel they need to know more about these topics, but the percentage of those feeling they do not know enough even to register positive or negative attitudes toward these groups has grown.
  • The second conclusion is one long known: personal contact with Muslims, Arabs, or any other group goes far to dispel prejudice against that group–even if, as ING’s own audience surveys have shown, the contact is as brief as one classroom session.

The more positive attitudes toward Muslims by younger respondents allows at least a tentative conclusion that their views result from exposure in school to reasonably objective instruction about Islam (as required by state education standards starting in the 1990s). In other words, sound education, even without personal contact, also dispels prejudice.

The takeaway from this survey, therefore, corroborates ING’s own research into the effectiveness of its educational work, which shows consistently positive change in attitudes towards Muslims and Islam after an ING presentation. (See ING’s latest impact report here.) More than that, it shows the readiness of the U.S. public for just this sort of educational outreach. The door for Muslims and their friends is wide open; all that is needed is to step through it.