In the climate of fear that is America today, it seems that every day right-wing politicians are proposing another crazy un-American idea to violate the civil rights of U.S. Muslims, such as a national police surveillance program or banning mosques (not to mention the idea of banning foreign Muslims from entering the country). The media has played into this, for example by covering blatantly false Donald Trump claims that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered on 9/11.
This political fearmongering has hugely distorted the view that most Americans have of the estimated 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States.
A new survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research group founded in Detroit after 9/11 to study shifting attitudes toward Muslims, seeks to provide better real data on American Muslims, on the (slim, it seems) hopes of correcting some people’s misperceptions. This is important at a time when about half of Americans say they don’t even personally know a person of Muslim faith. The work surveyed American Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics to compare their political, religious, and civic activities and opinions.
What’s most interesting about the survey results is that they show that the more religiously observant Muslims are, the more likely they are to take part in their broader community. Muslims were as likely as Protestants to say they have a strong American identity (85% vs. 84%) and identify as strongly with their faith at rates similar to other religious groups. But Muslims who say their faith is “important to their identity” were also more likely to say that being American is important to their identity (91%) than those Muslims who expressed weak religious identity (68%). Muslims who did go more regularly to mosque were also more likely to report working with their neighbors to solve community problems, be registered to vote, and to intend to vote in the upcoming election.
This isn’t a huge surprise. Religious people tend to be more community-oriented, no matter what the religion. “If we want to prevent radicalization, we need to keep people going to the mosques,” Dalia Mogahed, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s executive director, said in a TED talk given recently.
The survey contains a lot more data, which you can explore here. It turns out Muslims are the youngest and most racially diverse religious group—and are pretty similar to Protestants in their religious behavior and pretty similar to Jews in their left-leaning politics. Among the U.S. presidential candidates, 44% of Muslims favored Hillary Clinton and 27% favored Bernie Sanders, and 75% of Muslims supported President Obama–more than any other religious groups. Even though Muslims were the most likely to report religious discrimination, importantly about 60% said they were “satisfied” with the direction of the country–far higher than any other religious group.
Mogahed says that the media and politicians are together creating dangerous perceptions about a minority community in the United States–a worrisome problem for the future of democracy. “How does consuming fear 24 hours a day affect the health of our democracy, the health of our free thought?,” she asks. One study she cites showed that exposure to negative news stories about Muslims correlates with people becoming more accepting of military attacks on Muslim countries and domestic policies that curtail civil rights.
“When you look at when anti-Muslim sentiment spiked between 2001 and 2013, it happened three times, but it wasn’t around terrorist attacks. It was in the run up to the Iraq War and during two election cycles,” she notes. “Islamophobia isn’t just the natural response to Muslim terrorism as I would have expected. It can actually be a tool of public manipulation, eroding the very foundation of a free society, which is rational and well-informed citizens. Muslims are like canaries in the coal mine. We might be the first to feel it, but the toxic air of fear is harming us all.”