How We Feel About Islam


A new YouGov survey sheds some light on Americans’ attitudes toward the religion:

Most Americans (59%) have an unfavorable opinion of Islam, while only 18% say that they have a favorable view of the religion. Republicans (74%) have the most unfavorable view of Islam, while under-30s (32%) have the highest favorable attitudes towards Islam.

Perceptions vary greatly as to how many Muslims sympathize with ISIS and Al Qaeda. 19% of Americans believe that most Muslims sympathize with the two extremist groups, while at the opposite end of the spectrum 31% believe that less than 10% of Muslims support ISIS and Al-Qaeda. 27% say that between 10% and 50% of Muslims around the world back the two groups. Democrats are much less likely to say that significant numbers of Muslims support the two groups, with 43% of Democrats estimating that the percentage of Muslims that support ISIS and Al-Qaeda is under 10%, something only 20% of Republicans agree with.

Looking back at how Americans’ views of Jews evolved over time from hostile to welcoming, Jon Fasman predicts that feelings toward Muslims will follow a similar path:

As with much social change, finding a single, directly attributable cause for the decline in American anti-Semitism is more or less impossible. Many nebulous things happened at once. Jews grew more “American” and less “foreign”, not least because, as the 20th century wore on, an ever-greater share of them were American-born.

… America will inevitably reach the same accommodation with Islam that it has reached with Judaism. It will take time, of course—most American Muslims are foreign-born, so are in roughly the same xenophobia-provoking demographic position as American Jews were three generations ago. But already there are encouraging signs: Muslims appear to be far better integrated in America than in Europe, as measured by their share of non-Muslim friends and by the intermarriage rate. Their worldviews more closely resemble those of non-Muslim Americans than they do Muslims outside the United States.

A reader sounds off at length:

I’m a 30-year-old atheist who deconverted from Islam on my 15th birthday. Some friends and I (all of us secular liberals from various religious backgrounds who grew up in the Persian Gulf region, then moved to the West) have been having a great online debate about the very matters you have been covering in your Islam thread. I have found a lot of the discussion online quite invigorating, notwithstanding what I have to say here.

I think there is a huge overlap in the beliefs and opinions of Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, Sam Harris, and yourself. The primary difference lies in the strategies employed and the goals of the discussion. Maher/Harris, ultimately, want to advance atheism, and that’s what sets them apart from the others. I also want to advance atheism, at least in theory, but I am also a realist and it is my realism that makes me part ways with them and, frankly, you, on this matter.

Yes, open dialogue and discussion is a principle that must be protected and advanced … except when doing so actually hinders the cause in the long-run. There are a lot of things we just. don’t. talk. about. For instance: I have met Muslims throughout my life who, in their effort to explain some of the injustices Palestinians face, are obsessed with talking about which companies have Jewish CEOs or the proportion of Jews on the board of directors of Whatever, Inc. To those people I say: I don’t know if you are right or wrong, and frankly I don’t care. It doesn’t advance the cause of Palestinian human rights to point these things out. All it does is elicit strong emotional reactions from Jewish people, and further alienates them from the fucking cause you are fighting for.

I am one of those liberals who complains within my circle of Arab/Muslim friends and family that our community needs to confront the extremism that is spreading like a cancer in our region’s politics and culture. Yet I also recognize, because I have my legs glued to the ground, that the millions of Muslims who could be fighting extremism will defend their identities and their religion first, if it is under attack. This is basic human nature, like it or not. When Bill Maher (whom I adore, BTW) condemns Islam as a religion, whatever the nuances of his argument, he is perceived as attacking the identities of literally millions of potential allies in the liberal project. These millions, instead of focusing on the scourge of extremism, expend valuable airtime and resources in defending their faith, which as Azlan rightly noted, is an integral part of their identity.

The vast majority of Muslims are like the vast majority of all human beings: they just want to eat, fuck, sleep, and work. Non-Muslim people need to STFU about Islam so that normal, everyday Muslims can begin the fight against extremism in earnest. It’s the only strategy that makes any sense and the only one that has any chance of working. Muslim extremists don’t have to answer to white liberals, but they do need to answer to people who identify as Muslim.

The reforms that took place within Christianity were not easy, but the ones that are necessary within Islam have at least one greater hurdle to overcome. The transformation of Christianity did not have to contend with accusations that reformists were trying to “Islamize” or “Easternize” Christianity; reformist Christians, to my knowledge, weren’t accused of following the “corrupt example” of a powerful, foreign, dominant culture (and one that has meddled in the affairs of the region, to its detriment). In contrast, today, any effort to reform Islam will naturally be viewed as bowing down to a dominant, powerful western culture. Considering the fact that humans will do anything to distinguish themselves from external cultural forces, you can’t possibly think of a more powerful obstacle to reform than living in the shadow of a powerful liberal-Christian culture that has already embraced those reforms.

The good news is that enough Muslims live in liberal societies. Muslims who do not live in those societies, for the most part, do view their liberal counterparts as their brethren. If we give the Muslims in our part of the world the fucking space to speak for liberal values, for reforming Islamic institutions, for advancing the good parts of the religion while downplaying or reinterpreting the ugly parts, these views will be transmitted to their counterparts in the Middle East. In order for that to happen on a bigger scale, those liberal Muslims must be given the psychological space to do so, and it is my view that when westerners from Christian or Jewish backgrounds attack even small aspects of Islam on national TV, they are lessening that psychological space. I know it sounds somewhat irrational, but issues of identity and religion rarely are.

In my non-expert opinion, Islam is probably more violent than all the other major faiths. But insofar as you want to live in a more peaceful, stable world, who the fuck cares? Non-Muslims: STFU; Muslims: SPEAK.