How it Became Acceptable to Publicly Reveal Bias Against Muslims in America

Americans, in their heart of hearts, do not see Muslims differently than any other immigrant groups. However, the public expression of this opposition is more important.
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Before gauging whether you are in line with most of America in your opinion about Muslim immigrants, here are two things you should know: Firstly, Americans are no more opposed to granting citizenship to Muslim immigrants than Christian immigrants. Secondly, despite no real difference in opinion, Americans are significantly more open about their opposition to a Muslim becoming a citizen. In other words, what is unique is not the extent to which opposition exists, but the extent to which it is out in the open.

About a year ago, in the spring of 2010, with funding from the National Science Foundation's Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences program, we decided to see if Americans really felt differently about the incorporation of Muslims into American citizenry. Because the U.S. has a long tradition of religious tolerance, we worried that Americans might feel uncomfortable expressing an intolerant view toward a specific religious group. To get around this, we randomly assigned the 2,366 participants in our study to three groups. One group we asked directly whether they supported or opposed giving legal Muslim or Christian immigrants citizenship. A second and third group we asked about these two religious groups separately and indirectly, never forcing respondents to reveal their opinion to the interviewer or anyone. This approach, called a "list experiment," has been used to consider other controversial topics such an affirmative action and same-sex marriage. Its unique insight is not just into the level of opposition, but the degree to which it is hidden.

Here are the facts. A more detailed description of our work is currently in process, but we wanted to share what we know so far. When allowed to express their opinion indirectly, about 30 percent (±6 percent) of Americans oppose granting citizenship to Muslim immigrants. However, this sentiment is not unique. A nearly identical percentage of Americans, 31 percent (±6 percent), also feel that way about Christian immigrants, suggesting that the religion of the immigrant does not play a prominent role in forming public opinion. However, the difference is not the level of opposition, but the openness of its expression. When asked directly about granting citizenship to legal Muslim migrants, about 28 percent (±2 percent) express opposition, which is almost identical to the proportion that express this opinion indirectly. When asked about Christian immigrants, only about 11 percent (±2 perecent) of Americans directly reveal their opposition. In other words, there is nothing politically correct or socially desirable about hiding opposition to extending citizenship to legal Muslim immigrants, quite the opposite, in fact. Citizens are quite comfortable not only opposing it, but also being public about that fact.

We could interpret these results as revealing that Americans, in their heart of hearts, do not see Muslims differently than any other immigrant groups. However, the public expression of this opposition is more important. Given that opposition to Christian immigrants is significantly hidden, Muslim immigrants are justified in feeling that they are being singled-out publicly. The politicization of Islamophobia by some public officials, who vocally and unapologetically create a public forum to express targeted intolerance toward Muslims in the U.S., cannot help. For the day-to-day lives of Muslim Americans, it is not the true underlying sentiment that most directly affects them, it is the degree to which that sentiment is expressed.

Americans have little or no personal experience with which to form an opinion about Muslim immigrants. In May of 2007 the Pew Center projected that about 975,000 first-generation Muslim immigrant adults reside in the U.S. -- about 0.3 percent of the total population. If you made 100 new friends a year, you would be lucky to add one Muslim immigrant to your Facebook roster every three years. If it is not upon personal experience that we base our opinion, why then do we feel more comfortable expressing opposition toward one group and not another? In principle, there is nothing wrong with expressing opposition to citizenship for legal migrants, although the legality of that position is dubious. What is troubling is that despite identical true opposition to Christian and Muslim migrants, Muslims are disproportionately an accepted public target.

Mathew J. Creighton is an assistant professor of sociology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of human migration.

Amaney A. Jamal is an associate professor of politics at Princeton University. Her research focuses on democratization and political development in the Middle East and the political incorporation of Muslim and Arab Americans.

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