Public Opinion Shifts, As Religious Leaders Speak Out
ABC News, Oct. 28, 2002
By Steven Waldman and Deborah Caldwell
Special to ABCNEWS.com
— No one would have been surprised if, after 9/11, rage-filled Americans blamed Islam as the culprit.
After all, the nation was just attacked in the name of Allah. Then, it might have been assumed, the antagonism would have faded as people gained a more nuanced understanding of Islam and the terrorists’ twisted use of doctrine.
Instead, something close to the opposite has happened. A surprising new ABCNEWS/Beliefnet poll shows that after starting out surprisingly tolerant, public opinion of Islam has become more negative.
– The percentage of Americans having an unfavorable view of Islam has jumped from 24 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent now.
– The portion of Americans who say that Islam “doesn’t teach respect for other faiths” rose from 22 percent to 35 percent.
A total of 73 percent of Americans do not feel they have a good basic understanding of its beliefs and tenets, and that, too, has risen, from 61 percent last winter. This suggests that any additional information people have gleaned about Islam has confused more than clarified.
Meanwhile, evangelical white Protestants are 22 points more likely than other white Protestants to express an unfavorable opinion of Islam. They’re also more likely, but by much smaller margins, to think Islam encourages violence and doesn’t teach respect for other beliefs.
Talking Tolerance After 9/11
The survey was completed just before the two suspects in the Beltway sniper attacks — one of whom is a Muslim convert — were caught; therefore, it is possible the negative numbers could worsen.
Why did public opinion shift?
The most significant moment in 2001 on this issue was when President Bush stood before the nation just days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and declared, “Islam is a religion of peace.” He followed that up with a series of symbolic gestures: hosting a Ramadan dinner at the White House (a first) last November, posing for pictures with the Koran on his desk, inviting American Muslim leaders to his office, and visiting a Washington mosque.
Since most Americans knew little about Islam, Bush was, initially, America’s teacher. He did it for a mix of practical and idealistic reasons. In diplomatic terms, it was crucial that the United States gain support from governments like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. To get that support, it was important that the war on terror not be viewed as a war on Islam.
But even before his election, Bush had made a point of reaching out to Muslims. When he talked about religion during campaign speeches, he invariably referred to “churches, temples and mosques” a rhetorical innovation not before embraced by presidential candidates of either party.
But conservative Christians were quietly unhappy with Bush’s posture. One group, the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, encouraged members to “thank he described Islam as a “wicked, violent” religion — comments he repeated numerous times in the last year.
Slowly, one by one, conservative Christian leaders started voicing their concerns about Islam. At first, it was that Islam tended to cause violence, then that it was inherently violent. Then came direct, inflammatory attacks on the prophet Mohammed, with the head of the Southern Baptists calling Mohammed a “demon-possessed pedophile,” Pat Robertson labeling him a “wild-eyed fanatic” and Jerry Falwell calling him “a terrorist.”
The most important figure was Franklin Graham, who has a much bigger following than either Robertson or Falwell (except with TV show producers, who love the controversial duo). What’s more, he’s personal friends with Bush and gave the invocation at the new president’s inauguration. He is viewed as a mainstream evangelical leader.
In August, he said during an interview that Muslims hadn’t sufficiently apologized for the terrorist attacks — and he challenged Muslim leaders to offer to help rebuild Lower Manhattan or compensate the families of victims to show they condemn terrorism.
That comment followed a string of remarks about Islam and Muslims, as Graham promoted his new book, The Name. In the book, Graham writes that “Islam — unlike Christianity — has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths.”
Then, in an interview with Beliefnet that month, he virtually mocked Bush’s stance. After the terrorist attacks, he said, “there was this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion — but then you start having suicide bombers, and people start saying, ‘Wait a minute, something doesn’t add up here.'”
Some Christians came to view Islam not only as a threat to the Middle East, but also as a threat to America and a threat to the souls of millions. Efforts begun before 9/11 to convert Muslims around the world picked up steam. A popular one targeted an area of the world called “The 10/40 Window,” said to have the largest population of non-Christians in the world.
The area, also called “the Resistant Belt,” extends from 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator, and stretches from North Africa across to China. It includes Indonesia, Sudan, Morocco, Ivory Coast, southern China, Iran, Turkmenistan and other countries.
That this flood of criticism was never rebutted by Bush made Christian leaders feel this is fair game. Why didn’t Bush rebut them? The most common answer from Bush defenders was that it is an inappropriate role for the president to “get in the middle of an argument like that.” But given his strong statements on Islam, Bush had already inserted himself into the Islam discussion. His silence, particularly as his political allies began disagreeing with him, was therefore notable.
It’s important to distinguish between Graham and other Christian leaders. Unlike Robertson and Falwell, Graham is thought to represent the mainstream evangelical base, one of Bush’s crucial voting blocs. Graham’s comments signaled how unpopular Bush’s Islam-is-peace line had become with this important political group. There was no political cost to Bush after his initial statements; they were viewed as necessary comments to win the war. A direct rebuttal of Graham, however, could have alienated some of his supporters.
On the other hand, it could be argued, a wartime leader needs to be more politically courageous. Bush had plenty of political capital to spend but chose not to. What’s more, the comments from Robertson gave Bush an opportunity. While Graham is a popular figure in evangelical circles and neutral with the general public, Robertson is relatively uninfluential with evangelicals and unpopular with the general public. Bush could have disagreed with Robertson, showing his opposition to extremism on all sides, without alienating his base. His unwillingness to do even that exhibits an extreme caution, and some would say, political cowardice, on Bush’s part.
There is another factor: Muslim leaders themselves. They, like Bush, asserted over and over that Islam was a “religion of peace” and that “Islam means peace.” There was a cognitive dissonance between these simple assertions and a continuous stream of suicide bombings in the name of Islam. Conservative scholars and religious leaders cited verse after verse from the Koran showing a violent streak. Though many were taken out of context (and were comparable to verses in the Old Testament of the Bible), they nonetheless were effective rebuttals, at minimum, to the claim that “Islam is a religion of peace.”
Reacting to the Muslim Reaction
Meanwhile, polls came out during the winter showing that Muslims around the world believed Israel was partly to blame for the attacks; even a few respected American Muslim leaders echoed those statements.
Muslim leaders maintained that Osama bin Laden was an aberration, a single twisted soul distorting Islam. But the reality is something more disturbing — that Islam is now being used as a justification for violence — not by a few, but by many. Though many Muslim leaders criticized the terrorists, few stated that the problems with Islam’s misuse were dangerously widespread. As a result, Muslim leaders may have lost some of their credibility.
During a dinner in early October sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Judith Kipper chastised Muslims for not saying and doing more. “There is a need now for Muslims in America to stand up and be accountable,” said Kipper, an ABCNEWS consultant and director of the Middle East program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Keeping your head down isn’t going to work anymore.”
American University professor Akbar Ahmed admitted as much: “For the first time in history, Muslim civilization is on a direct collision course with all the world religions.”
Ahmed said that at this point, he is aggravated that many Muslims won’t acknowledge this. “After Sept. 11, there was this mantra, ‘We are peaceful, we are peaceful.’ After Muslims killed 3,000 people, it makes no sense to me.”
Though probably a mistake, the posture of Muslim leaders was understandable in one sense: American Muslims live in constant fear that antagonism would turn to harassment or violence against them. And indeed, since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been numerous instances of violence against American Muslims, so a defensive posture is not at all surprising.
But Ahmed, a former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom and an expert on bin Laden, said Muslims must overcome that posture. “I feel a sense of sorrow and embarrassment,” because, he said, “We are at the bottom of the pile.”