Amid the rising Islamophobia in the West, findings of a major survey merit our attention. A survey of American attitudes vis-a-vis Islam, carried out by Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), has concluded that “fears of Islam decreased the more people knew about the religion”. Among the recommendations for challenging Islamophobia, ISPU recommended demystifying Islam by teaching people about its tenets and through interfaith work with other communities.
As per the latest ISPU survey, 53 percent of Jews in the US held a positive view of Muslim Americans, with just 13 percent thinking negatively of the group. However, White Evangelicals continue to hold negative perception of Islam and Muslims, with 44 percent thinking negatively of the community and just 20 percent holding a positive image of Muslims. On the contrary, the survey showed that just 14 percent of Muslims held a negative view of White Evangelicals, with 33 percent holding a positive view, and 50 percent giving no opinion.
ISPU has been doing remarkable work to counter the widespread misunderstanding regarding Muslims in the post–9/11 geopolitical world. As the ISPU website states, lack of data and dearth of Muslim voices in media and policy circles compound the problem. ISPU conducts research to combat the anti-Muslim sentiment often manifested in targeted policies that infringe on personal and religious freedom of the community.
In 2017, a Pew Research Center survey asked Americans to rate members of nine religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100, where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating. Overall, Americans gave Muslims an average rating of 48 degrees. Americans viewed more warmly the seven other religious groups mentioned in the survey (Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons). The Pew report, however, added that views toward Muslims are now warmer than they were a few years ago.
A similar 2016 survey of Pew Research Center asked Europeans whether they viewed Muslims favorably or unfavorably. Perceptions varied. Majorities in eastern and southern Europe including countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland and Greece viewed Muslims unfavorably, while negative attitudes toward Muslims were much less common in France, Germany, United Kingdom and elsewhere in Northern and Western Europe. The survey once again established that people of right-wing ideology were much more likely to see Muslims negatively.
The reputed fact-tank also explored characteristics people in the West associated with Muslims. A 2011 survey revealed that a median of 50% across four Western European countries, the U.S. and Russia called Muslims violent and a median of 58% called them “fanatical,” but fewer used negative words like greedy, immoral or selfish. A median of just 22% of Westerners said Muslims are respectful of women, but far more said Muslims are honest (median of 51%) and generous (41%).
People in seven Muslim-majority countries were also surveyed. A median of 68% of Muslims viewed Westerners as selfish. Considerable shares used other negative adjectives for Westerners, including violent (median of 66%), greedy (64%) and immoral (61%), while fewer attributed positive characteristics like “respectful of women” (44%), honest (33%) and tolerant (31%) to Westerners.
Extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have brought disrepute to Muslims. While the anti-Muslim groups have been using it for their propaganda work, they have been downplaying the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not approve of the ideology espoused by ISIS. The pertinent question is ‘How do Muslims feel about groups like ISIS?’ Surveys have shown most Muslim countries have unfavorable view of ISIS. Relatively small shares see ISIS favorably. Most Muslims have unequivocally condemned and termed suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam as unjustified.
Speaking at the 5th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue recently, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) pointed to the pattern behind the attacks on places of worship including the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka that left over 250 people dead, attacks on synagogues in California and Pittsburg as well as the massacre of Muslims inside mosques in Christchurch.
“In all these heinous and cowardly attacks… we see a common pattern: hatred of the ‘other’. These criminals are hijacking entire faith communities, pitting religions against each other,” Moratinos asserted, adding, “The problem is never the faith. It is those who manipulate the faithful and turn them against each other by their perverted interpretations of holy texts.”
Unfortunately, social media has been adding fuel to this raging fire by offering a space for ultra-right advocates to spew venom. In this backdrop, Muslims across the world are faced with the daunting task to counter the right-wing narrative and hate speech machinery. Coming back to the ISPU survey, there is a need to demystify Islam by teaching people about its real tenets. The more the people come to know about real Islam the lesser they will fear the Muslims.