By Maha Elgenaidi and Henry Millstein
Prejudice against Muslims and Islam is still rampant among the U.S. public, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Institute. The widely respected polling organization took a novel approach, asking respondents to rate the "warmth" or "coldness" they felt toward various religious groups on a scale from 1 to 100, lower numbers being "colder" and more negative and higher numbers "warmer" and more positive.
The results show that we have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups in the survey; their average rating was 40, one point below the atheists' rating of 41. Mormons, at 48, were the only other group to score below a neutral 50. By contrast, the highest scoring groups were Jews (63), Catholics (62), and evangelical Christians (61). Buddhists were rated at 53 and Hindus at 50.
The results for Muslims are no more encouraging when one looks at how specific religious groups regard Muslims. Muslims are rated highest by those who describe themselves as agnotics -- at a still cool 47. The religiously unaffiliated overall, including atheists, agnostics and those describing themselves as "nothing in particular," rate Muslims at an average of 45. Black Protestants rate Muslims at 44. All other groups rate Muslims at 40 or below, including some groups that one might expect to be more liberal, such as white mainline Protestants (37) and Catholics (40). White evangelicals are, not surprisingly, most negative toward Muslims, rating them at 30. The next most negative rating, sad to say, comes from Jews (35), probably because of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The one moderately encouraging sign in the poll is that younger respondents tend to view Muslims more positively than older ones. Respondents 18 to 29 years of age rate Muslims at a neutral 49, those 30 to 49 at 42, those 50 to 64 at 36, and those 65 and older at 32. The Pew report speculates that this may be due to the fact that a smaller percentage of younger people consider themselves Christian (59% of those under 30) than do older people (85% of those over 65). This is, however, not the only possible explanation. The study of Islam began to be included in school curricula in the early 1990s, when the generations showing less negative attitudes towards Muslims were in school. It was at that time, also, that ING began its work, not only presenting an accurate and objective view of Muslims and Islam, but fostering direct contact between students and practicing Muslims. As the Pew report itself notes, personal contact with people from a particular religious group plays a major role in promoting a more positive attitude toward the group. The work of ING, therefore, plays into the more positive perceptions of Islam among younger people.
The full report can be found here. It shows how much ground remains to be covered in working toward a positive view of Muslims by the U.S. public. ING's work is still as crucial as ever.
Maha Elgenaidi is a trustee and incoming Chair of the Board of Islamic Networks Group (ING). She holds a master's degree in Religious Studies from Stanford University and received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Economics from the American University in Cairo.
Henry Millstein is ING's Programs Manager. He holds a PhD in Jewish Studies from UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union
Islamic Networks Group (ING) is a non-profit organization that counters prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America's history and cultural diversity, while building relations between American Muslims and other groups. To find out more about ING, visit http://www.ing.org