FREMONT — The first time Glenn Koehler can remember learning about Muslims and the Islamic faith came in September 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September murdered 11 Israeli hostages during the Olympics in Munich, Germany.
“Then the second was Sept. 11,” Koehler said. “So there’s really been no pleasant introductions.”
Koehler is a 58-year-old Fremont engineer. He describes himself as a Lutheran, politically conservative and a registered Republican who gets much of his news from the Drudge Report, Michael Savage and the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group for Christian rights. He does not have Muslim friends, and agrees with the perceptions that Muslims teach their children to hate unbelievers, Muslims value life less than other people, and that Islam teaches violence and hatred.
Koehler is not alone. Two polls released last week indicated that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam and that one in four of those surveyed have extreme anti-Muslim views.
An independent survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) shows that 23 to 27 percent of all Americans believe Muslims value life less than other people and that Islam teaches violence and hatred. The survey also showed that only 6 percent of Americans have a positive first impression of Islam and Muslims.
A similar poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News found that one in four Americans “admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims,” and that 46 percent had a negative view of Islam, a 7 percent jump since the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
When asked to respond to the open-ended question, “When you hear the word ‘Muslim,’ what is the first thought that comes to your mind?” Koehler said: “religion of death.”
Inge Belle, a Fremont executive assistant for a high-tech firm who described herself as a politically independent Catholic, was not much more positive in her response.
“Nothing really positive,” said Belle, who also said she has no Muslim friends. “I get a bad, bad vibe. I mean, I have my own experiences here living in Fremont. It’s like living in the Middle East.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that when Mohamad Rajabally, a Fremont dentist and president of the Islamic Society of the East Bay, was asked what his first thought is when he hears the world “Muslim,” he responded: “the most misunderstood religion in the world.”
Rajabally, who has helped run Islamic outreach by holding open houses at the mosque and holding library events to discuss the legacy of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, said he’s not surprised by the views of 41 percent of all Americans who agreed with the statement that the American-Muslim community is cooperating in the fight against terrorism.
Nor was he surprised by statements like those of Koehler, who said he was unaware of any statements by Muslim leaders condemning terrorism despite the efforts of national Islamic organizations.
“You need to have positive exposure to Islam, but that doesn’t necessarily sell,” Rajabally said. “What sells is the bombings, and people take that to represent 1.2 billion people. ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), CAIR and other Islamic groups speak out, (but) they’re not being heard.”
He noted, however, that when Muslims have held open houses or outreach efforts here, as they did earlier this month in the weeks after the controversy over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, they’ve been positively received.
“Are we preaching to the choir?” Rajabally said. “Sometimes. … But we believe if you reach just one (person who’s introduced to Islam for) the first time, then it’s worth it.”
Maha Al-Ghoul, a Fremont mother who is Muslim, agreed.
“If we can reach 30 percent of the people who believe Islam is terrorism, we feel they can affect another 30 percent,” Al-Ghoul said.
Al-Ghoul said she has worked hard to teach her children to treat all people with respect regardless of their faith.
“It’s really about living your life with respect for all people,” Al-Ghoul said. “If a person needs help, you help them. You have to teach your children to judge people by what’s in their heart. I teach my children to judge people based on who they are, regardless of their religion.”
Farid Senzai, director of research with the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a Union City resident, cautioned that opinions of Americans in polls can “change like the wind.”
However, Senzai said he is alarmed by a string of polls since 2002 that continue to show negative tendencies toward Islam.
“In September and October of 2001, soon after the attacks, what I thought was very helpful was people within the administration saying that al-Qaida does not represent Islam, that this is not a clash of civilizations,” Senzai said. “But beginning midway through 2002, you heard less and less of those statements.”
Senzai, who is Muslim, noted that Islamic organizations have come a long way in terms of building alliances with non-Muslim organizations and sharing more about their beliefs.