People fear that which they don’t understand. So goes the axiom, and this was confirmed in a recent poll about American views of Islam by HuffPo/YouGov. Thepoll, conducted last month, found that 55% of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam. Couple that high negative perception of Muslims with the fact that 44% of Americans had no interest in even learning more about the religion, and we get the picture that in terms of image, American Muslims are not in a good place, nor does the future bode well.
Why do we have these negative impressions of Islam, and can we as American Muslims do anything about it?
Luckily, the poll numbers themselves can give us answers to both those questions. Only 13% of respondents said they knew Islam extremely or very well. Furthermore, close to 70% of people neither work with a Muslim nor have a Muslim friend. How can we expect others to like us when they do not even know us? And why would they even want to learn more about us if we do not affect their daily lives? Thus, it is no coincidence that American Muslims have such high unfavorable ratings.
The sad part is that what little information Americans do get about Islam centers on such negative and horrid events such as bombings, beheadings, and terror. It is only reasonable to expect a negative reaction. If one is inundated with images of people who claim to be Muslims acting as barbarians who have no place in a civilized world, what can we expect? The problem is that the general American population has little in terms of positive counter-images.
If we American Muslims want to improve public perception of ourselves, we must be more present, more active, and more visible. This is corroborated by study after study which show that exposure increases preference. Specific to perceptions of Muslims, studies have demonstrated that knowing a Muslim strongly increases a person’s positive impression of Muslims in general. The statistics make it clear–we must get out and start talking.
With as few as 2 million Muslims in the United States, this task may seem daunting. But small changes can have a large effect. We have not even begun to scratch the surface of things we can do. We are still affected by the legacy of some from the older generations who came to the United States to avoid political turmoil, wanted to live quietly, and focused on making economic contributions. The result is that the foundation for civic engagement in some of our communities is not as strong as it could be. For example, many of our mosques do not have interfaith programs or community service initiatives. Efforts in these areas can have far-reaching consequences on perceptions.
An increase in positive public perception leads to an increase in our ability to affect public policy in a positive way. State legislators will look at shariah bills from a different, more nuanced perspective because they have a Muslim on their staff. A presidential candidate can be pressured to apologize after taking a cheap shot at Muslims to gain political points.
As it stands right now, many people don’t like us. But there are things we can do. We must be engaged. On a community level, we must invest in people and organizations that engage in public affairs. We must train activists who are knowledgeable and appear relevant in TV interviews and who are sophisticated in debating with media personalities. On an individual level, we need to be social with co-workers. Run for local office. Be a part of the PTA. Join a softball league, or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Because if people fear what they do not understand, let’s help them understand.[Contact: Saif Inam, Policy Analyst, (202) 547-7701, firstname.lastname@example.org]