After Orlando, American Attitudes Toward Muslims More Favorable than Before
BY: Kristina Perry/Contributing Writer
WASHINGTON, DC: On Monday, renowned researcher Shibley Telhami presented his team’s updated findings on American attitudes towards Middle Eastern immigrants and priorities of American foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Telhami presented data that was collected two weeks before the tragic Orlando shootings, and then tested again two weeks after, to see if the tragic event had an effect on American policy and perceptionsof the Middle East. The research found mixed results, both positive and harrowing, and depicted the polarization of the American political climate.
Shibley’s data began with assessing respondents’ attitudes toward Muslim people. Shibley clarified that attitudes towards Muslim people and the Muslim faith, or Islam, are two separate categories, as his previous research found that Americans distinguish between the two. This separation of the people from the religion is an interesting trend in the American thought process, similar to racial exceptionalism thinking, as well.
Exemplified best by the popular line, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend…” this type of thinking now applies to Muslims and Middle Easterners in the American thought process. While this type of thinking is problematic, the study identified that Americans with a favorable view of Muslim people increased after the Orlando shooting, exactly the opposite of what might be expected in reaction to the inflammatory rhetoric and media coverage following the attack.
Shibley also included data collected in November of 2015, and showed that there has been a progressive, steady increase in Americans that hold a favorable view of Muslim people, which is now up to 62%.
The same positive trend holds for the American view of Islam, but not as strongly, and with hot contention from Donald Trump supporters. Generally, 44% of respondents have a favorable view of Islam, but of Trump supporters, 84% hold an unfavorable view of the religion.
Shibley aimed to assess the accuracy of the perceptions held by respondents about the Orlando shooting and the identity of the shooter, Omar Mateen. Respondents were asked, based on the coverage they had heard or read by media outlets, if Mateen was a born and raised U.S. citizen, a recent immigrant, a naturalized citizen, or a foreigner who had been living in the U.S. for some years. The good news is that 66% of the respondents answered correctly, identifying Mateen as a natural born U.S. citizen.
However, roughly a third of respondents were wrongly informed regarding Mateen’s citizenship and upbringing, revealing a lack of information despite intense media coverage.
Americans are internationally known for being opinionated, regardless of the accuracy of the information shaping their views. Information is publicized on a broad range of platforms, notably on social media, but in the digital age where a fact check is seconds away, greater numbers of Americans are choosing to ignore facts, and live in information bubbles. As American politics continues to grow increasingly polarized and sensationalized, it is equally as important for consumers of American media and politics to find the facts, and abide by the age-old proverb of not believing everything one hears.
Respondents were additionally asked about Mateen’s motivations for the Orlando shooting, as well as his affiliation with ISIL, and picked one of four options that had all been circulated by media. Over 50% believed that Mateen was inspired by ISIL but operated independently of the terrorist organization, and was primarily motivated by hate of the LGBTQ community, rather than militant Islamic teachings. Another 34% of respondents believed Mateen only claimed connection to the Islamic State as a means of boasting.
Perhaps the most important question in this poll asked if there was common ground between Western societies and Islam, or whether the two are incompatible. Overall, 64% of respondents agreed “people in the West and the Islamic world have similar needs and wants, so it is possible to find common ground.” This percentage is 7 points higher than it was in November 2015, and 3 points higher than before the Orlando shooting. The steady progression of a positive, more cohesive worldview challenges the idea that the answer to attacks and divisive rhetoric is reactionary politics and unavoidable hatred.
During the questions and answer period of the presentation, Shibley and Galston discussed that the alarming spike in polarization of American politics and the public is influenced in part by the election cycle. The researchers expressed the likely potential of a decrease in this polarization at the end of the political season, depending on who wins. Galston appropriately dubbed this spike “polarization on steroids,” as Shibley asserted that the new president will play a vital role in shaping the narrative of American identity and unity. There is a 50 point gap between Trump and Clinton supporters regarding the compatibility of Western and Islamic societies.
Adding to the positive trend of optimism and unity, Shibley repeated the fact that respondents who are more open to reconciliation, and hold more favorable opinions of Islam and Muslims, were those that spoke more than one language, held a passport, and had international connections through either family or friends abroad. These respondents also overwhelmingly belonged to the millennial generation, aged 18-34. This generational group is even larger than baby boomers, and will soon represent the largest group of eligible voters.
The results of this poll display something important about the values central to American identity and politics. Tolerance, unity, and resistance to reactionary isolationism are still intact, even thriving, in this environment of polarization and hatefulness. The American public, especially its youth, has responded by uniting and supporting one another even more than before, rather than reacting with hate.