Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Not Learning from History: American Attitudes Toward Islam
For the past several weeks, the news has been filled with the debate over whether a proposed Islamic Cultural Center (inaccurately referred repeatedly to as a mosque) should be built near Ground Zero in New York. On top of that this week Pastor Terry Jones from Gainesville, Florida has planned a well publicized “Koran-burning Ceremony” to mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover there have been other protests around the country in Tennessee and California also protesting the building of mosques. What is so troubling in these reports is the way in which grief, fear and ignorance have been exploited for personal and political gain.
Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on American attitudes regarding Islam as a religion and Muslims in general. Some of the insights from the report are revealing in their political implications, and what they suggest about US citizens in general. Overall the study revealed that Americans are divided on their favorable or unfavorable views of Islam (30% favorable, 38% unfavorable, 32% don’t know). However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider these other findings
- While 51% believe that the New York mosque should not be built in its proposed location (compared to 34% who say it should be allowed to be built), 62% of those polled believed that Muslims should have the same rights to build houses of worship in local communities. [Does anyone else see a contradiction in these numbers?]
- 54% of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Islam, compared to 27% of Democrats.
- The older a person is the more unfavorable that person is toward Islam.
- The less formal education a person has the more likely he is to have an unfavorable view of Islam.
While in no case do a majority of Democrats, college educated people or young adults have a favorable perspective on Islam, it is clearly evident that older, more conservative and less educated people tend to have the most unfavorable views of Islam. Additionally as the first bullet (above) indicates we profess freedom of religious expression, but don’t extend that freedom to Muslims.
However, the most telling chart came near the end of the report, where people were asked about how much they knew about Islam as a religion. Pew has asked this question several times over last decade, so the chart helped reveal how much Americans have chosen to learn over the last decade. In 2010 approximately 55% of Americans said they either knew little or nothing at all about Islam. What is striking is that in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks 61% of Americans said they knew little or nothing at all about Islam – only 5% difference.
What this tells me is that despite having been attacked by “Islamic extremists” nine years ago, we Americans have done little to understand the religion of those who attacked us. Moreover, we have not sought to understand the difference between a militant Muslim and a peace-loving adherent of the Islamic faith. To turn it around, it would be akin to not trying to understand the differences within Christianity between a Jim Jones or David Koresh on the one hand, and the Mennonites or Presbyterians on the other. I would not want my faith to be judged on the basis of militant extremists, but in fact that is exactly what we have done toward Muslims both in the US and abroad. What the Pew report makes clear is that a majority of people are reacting out of ignorance and fear, rather than understanding and a willingness to learn.
In part responsibility for this maladjustment needs to be placed at the feet of the media and certain politicians. Today I listened to an interview with Pastor Jones and wondered: Why are they even giving this whack job a hearing? Why treat him as if he is an appropriate representative of America or Christianity? Why not denounce him for the self-righteous hate-mongerer that he is? Politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, and newscasters like Glen Beck and Shawn Hannity (FOX News) have used the NYC mosque debate as another way to slam Democrats and President Obama. I give credit to people like New York City Mayor Bloomberg and others for speaking out in favor of the mosque building going ahead as planned, but there are too few leaders willing to take a strong stand on principles that all Americans take for granted. This includes religious leaders.
As a Christian and an American, I am embarrassed and saddened by the current attitudes toward Muslims revealed in the report and in the news. This current scape-goating of Muslims is yet another example of the pattern of US history where Americans have repeatedly singled out certain groups of people to vent their fear and guilt in place of seeking understanding. US History is filled with examples of historical scapegoats from African slaves to Native Americans to Irish and East European Catholics to Latino farm workers to Chinese railroad workers to Japanese Americans to Jews to undocumented immigrants. What is equally sad is that some members of these previously denigrated groups now point the finger as Muslims.
Just as with slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and the internment of Japanese- American during World War II, one day we will as a nation look back and shake our heads at our shameful behavior toward our fellow citizens who happen to practice Islam. One would hope we could learn from history, but as more than one sage has reflected, if we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them; and so it seems we are repeating them once again.