Negative impression of Islam increasing

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That's the headline in today's Washington Post on a story reporting some results from a Post/ABC News poll. The story, by Claudia Deane and Darryl Fears, takes a tut-tutting sort of tone. Some 46 percent of Americans have a negative impression of Islam, the story says, 7 percentage points more than in the days after September 11. Why should that be? The Post blames the media—no, really.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration's attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation's ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Conservative and liberal experts said Americans' attitudes about Islam are fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.

Maybe I'm reading too hard between the lines, but the message I get from this is: If only those dirty media would stop reporting bad news, then people would stop thinking all these bad things about Muslims and Arabs.

The ordinary people quoted by Deane and Fears mostly have intelligent things to say. Examples:

In Gadsden, Ala., Ron Hardy, an auto parts supplier, said Arabs own a lot of stores in his area and "they're OK." But, Hardy, 41, said, "I do think" Islam has been "hijacked by some militantlike guys."

Another:

But his good feelings do not extend to Islam. "I don't mean to sound harsh or anything, but I don't like what the Muslim people believe in, according to the Koran. Because I think they preach hate," he said.

As for the controversial cartoons of Muhammad, he said Arabs seem hypersensitive about religion. "I think it's been blown out of proportion," he said.

The experts quoted don't come off as well. Jim Zogby's comments are at least defensible but have a certain tone of self-pity.

James J. Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said he is not surprised by the poll's results. Politicians, authors, and media commentators have demonized the Arab world since 2001, he said.

"The intensity has not abated and remains a vein that's very near the surface, ready to be tapped at any moment," Zogby said. "Members of Congress have been exploiting this over the ports issue. Radio commentators have been talking about it nonstop."

Actually, talk radio commentary has been on both sides of the Dubai ports issue. Rush Limbaugh, for one, has been speaking out in favor of the Dubai ports deal for days.

The least defensible comments come—natch—from academia:

Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, agreed, saying Americans "have been given the message to respond this way by the American political elite, mass media, and by select special interests."

Cole said he was shocked when a radio talk show host asked him if Islamic extremists would set off a nuclear bomb in the United States in the next six months. "It was ridiculous. I think anti-Arab racism and profiling has become respectable," he said.

This is ridiculous. The American political elite, starting with George W. Bush and including leaders of both parties, have been saying over and over that Islam is a religion of peace—and then noting that it has been hijacked and perverted by some radicals. "Anti-Arab racism" is nothing like the racism shown against blacks in the segregated South or on the West Coast against Japanese-Americans in World War II.

As for profiling becoming respectable, how about considering the facts? The September 11 hijackers were not a random sample of foreigners living in the United States. The agitators who conspired to set off the riots about the Danish cartoons and the rioters themselves were not a random sample of the world population. Organized violence around the world is not committed by a random sample of the world's peoples; it comes, as Prof. Samuel Huntington points out, largely from Muslims.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't try to strengthen and encourage those elements of Islam that do tend toward peace and freedom over those that tend toward violent jihad. Or that we shouldn't encourage and applaud those Muslims who denounce terrorism—though wouldn't it be nice if there were more of them? What I find surprising about the poll is not that many Americans regard Muslims as more likely to be terrorists than non-Muslims but that the number isn't higher. The default position for the American people is tolerance and appreciation of other cultures. It is only when large numbers of people of a particular culture and citing a particular religion try to kill us that we start feeling negative about them—and we're rather hesitant even then.

Consider one question from the survey. "Compared with other religions, do you think there are more violent extremists within Islam, fewer, or about the same number as in other religions?" In response, 58 percent said more, 34 percent said the same number, and 3 percent said fewer. Factually, the 58 percent are right. What's notable is that 34 percent are still willing to say the same number and that 3 percent–who could these people be?—say fewer. There's a difference between racism and seeing what is happening.