Americans are increasingly negative about Islam and Muslims - or so found an important survey that the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published last week.
Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the jump in Americans who find that Islam, more than other religions, is likely "to encourage violence among its believers." In March 2002, 25 percent of the sample advocated this view. Now 44 percent do.
Other trends concerning Islam are also negative:
- American Muslims: In November 2001, they had positive views from 59 percent of the public. That number fell to 54 percent in March 2002 and now stands at 51 percent.
- Presidential candidate: Americans are much more disinclined to vote for a Muslim for U.S. president than a candidate of another religion: 31 percent say no to a Muslim, versus 20 percent to an evangelical Christian, 15 percent to a Catholic and 14 percent to a Jew.
- Shared values: Asked if "the Muslim religion and your own religion have a lot in common," 31 percent answered affirmatively in November 2001, 27 percent in March 2002, and just 22 percent this year.
What explains this increasingly worried attitude? Clearly, much of it follows on the on-going reality of terrorism, hate-filled statements and other problems tied to militant Islam around the globe. But some of it also results from the problems concerning militant Islam's control of the institutions of American Muslim life.
Whether it be the imam at the local mosque, the principal of the Islamic school, the Muslim chaplain in a prison or the armed forces, the editor of an Islamic publishing house or the spokesman for a national group, the American Muslim scene presents an almost uniform picture of apologetics for terrorism, conspiracy theories about Jews and demands for Muslim privilege.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, with 17 offices across North America, has emerged as the powerhouse of Muslim groups and best exemplifies this problem. Consider the sentiments of its leadership:
- Omar M. Ahmad (chairman) says suicide bombers "kill themselves for Islam" and so are not terrorists.
- Nihad Awad (executive director) proclaims his "support" for Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group.
- Ibrahim Hooper (spokesman) declares, "I wouldn't want to create the impression that I wouldn't like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future."
Nor does CAIR just excuse violence. Two of its former employees, Bassem Khafagi and Ismail Royer, have recently been arrested on charges related to terrorism. And a member of CAIR's advisory board, Siraj Wahhaj, was named by the U.S. attorney as one of the "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators" in an attempted terrorist assault.
Despite this ugly record, the U.S. government widely accepts CAIR as representing Islam. The White House invites it to functions, the State Department links to its Web page and Democratic senators rely on its research. In New York City, the mayor appoints its general counsel to the Human Rights Commission and the police department hosts its "sensitivity training" seminar. In Florida, public schools invite it to teach "diversity awareness."
The national media broadcasts its views. Which Muslim, for example, did the Los Angeles Times quote responding to the Pew report? Why, Ibrahim Hooper, of course.
CAIR, in brief, has established itself as the voice of American Islam, thereby battering Islam's noble reputation among Americans.
Moderate Muslims, of course, reject CAIR's representing them.
- The late Seifeldin Ashmawy, publisher of the New Jersey-based Voice of Peace, dismissed CAIR as the champion of "extremists whose views do not represent Islam."
- Tashbih Sayyed of the Los Angeles-based Council for Democracy and Tolerance accuses CAIR of being a "fifth column" in the United States.
- Jamal Hasan of the same organization discerns CAIR's goal as spreading "Islamic hegemony the world over by hook or by crook."
Improving Islam's reputation will require two steps: that the great institutions of American life reject all contact with CAIR and like groups, while moderate Muslims build sound organizations, ones that neither apologize for terrorism nor seek "the government of the United States to be Islamic."
(Technical note: The Pew study, "Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus," was conducted June 24-July 8. Replies have a 95 percent confidence level and accuracies of +/- 2.5 percent or +/- 3.5 percent.)
March 9, 2006 update: For more polling on this subject, see "American Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims – Which Direction?"