The Twisted View of Muslim Americans in the Trump Era

How political rhetoric, not terror attacks, exacerbates the hate.

Muslim families celebrate Eid al-Fitr at Luna Park in Coney Island.
Muslim families celebrate Eid al-Fitr at Luna Park in Coney Island, New York City, in Friday. Gabriela Bhaskar/Reuters

In a new survey from the Democracy Fund Voter Survey Group, political scientist John Sides and researcher Dalia Mogahed examine the attitudes of Americans toward their fellow citizens who are Muslim. Many of the results are not surprising, but nevertheless disturbing: Nearly 1 in 5 Americans, for example, think Muslim Americans should be denied the right to vote. And Muslim Americans are considered to be less proud of their Americanness, and more accepting of violence, than other Americans.

I recently spoke by phone with Mogahed, who directs research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, or ISPU, to discuss the study. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Trump is changing the views of both Republicans and Democrats toward Muslim Americans, why terrorist attacks may matter less to public opinion than political rhetoric, and the connection between xenophobia and authoritarianism.

Isaac Chotiner: What’s your biggest takeaway from the study?

Dalia Mogahed: That there’s this enormous gulf between the reality of American Muslims and many Americans’ perception of them. As someone who studies American Muslims, I can empirically point to evidence of, say, Muslims being the least likely American faith group to condone violence, according to several studies, and yet the most likely to be associated with being predisposed to it.

What would that mean, “condoning violence”?

For example, a question we’ve asked in our polling at ISPU, which we’ve been doing for the past three years, is if people think it’s ever morally justified to target and kill civilians, either by a military or by an individual or a small group. We do polling across religious communities in America. What we’ve found over and over is Americans that are Muslim are at least as, if not more likely, to condemn that kind of an action. Pew Research did something similar where they asked a similar question in their polling of American Muslims and the general public, and in their case, they found nearly a 20 percent difference of Muslims being more likely to condemn that kind of action. My point is that’s the reality, but the perception of the community according to this recent study is that large swaths of the American public believe that Muslims are more likely to condone violence than others. There’s this gulf.

The second big takeaway is that there is a link, a very interesting link, between xenophobia, or negative perceptions and stereotypes of religious minorities, mainly Muslims, and approval of authoritarian perspectives. This link between fear and bigotry and actually desiring a more authoritarian political reality was, I thought, a very important takeaway from the study.

What is an example of approving “authoritarian perspectives”?

There are standard questions that political scientists use to measure authoritarianism. One of them is the preference for a strong leader. Another example from the study that ISPU came out with recently was that people who had a higher score, or a more negative score on the Islamophobia index, were also more likely to favor suspending checks and balances and censoring the media’s criticism of government in the wake of a terrorist attack.

What connections did you find between people’s political identification and their feelings about American Muslims?

People who lean right are more likely to also express anti-Muslim views. The one exception that I think is really important is that even though left-leaning Americans tended to be much more positive about Muslims generally, the belief that Muslims had outdated views of women was something that the left and the right shared. In our polarized world, Muslim women provide the one and only thing I think conservatives and liberals agree on, which is that they both believe Muslim women are oppressed.

We actually asked Muslims themselves what challenges they face. Muslim women are as likely as Christian and Jewish women to say that misogyny is a problem for them. So they’re not unique in their struggle with sexism generally in society, but where they are very different from other faith communities is that Muslim women are far more likely to face racism and religious bigotry. And actually far more likely to face racism and religious bigotry than misogyny. So, misogyny is not their biggest problem. Their biggest problem is racism and religious bigotry, fueled by, interestingly, the belief that they are oppressed. So therein lies the great irony: The concern for Muslim women’s well-being is actually fueling what they are suffering from, which is religious bigotry.

I imagine some of that is based on the way women are treated in large chunks of the Islamic world. Do you think that that’s responsible for some of the answers?

The study does indicate Muslim women in the United States, but of course there is a conflation of Muslims everywhere and the problem of viewing Muslims as a monolithic group. I think you’re right that perceptions of how Muslim women fare in the Middle East can frame how they believe Muslims in general behave toward women.

Right, and the perception’s not entirely wrong. You could argue that it’s not the fault of Islam, but that perception seems based on something.

I totally agree with you. I don’t think the perception is completely wrong. There are problems in many Muslim-majority countries regarding women. I think the problem is of centralizing it to Islam or to being Muslim. You look at Latin America. There’s a lot of gender violence in Latin America and they’re also predominantly Catholic, but we are not linking those two things. When it comes to Muslim societies, we do tend to link Islam and any problem that these societies may have.

Maybe we should be linking Catholicism, but that’s a different conversation that an atheist like me does not need to get involved in here. I don’t know if you can answer this from your study, but how much do you think some of these feelings, especially among Republicans and conservatives, were always there? And how much do you think people’s opinions are changing negatively about Muslims because of Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of his allies in the media?

It’s a great question. I have been studying public opinion of Muslims for more than a decade. It was out there and we weren’t paying as much attention to it before, but there were studies. There are even studies that precede 9/11, believe it or not. Here’s what you find when you look at this research: One is that anti-Muslim sentiment does indeed follow political rhetoric, rather than terrorist attacks. That’s one big surprise I found when I looked at the data. Anti-Muslim sentiment, or specifically linking Islam with violence, does not follow terrorist attacks. It actually follows two things: political campaigns and the drum up to the Iraq war.

More than 9/11 you’re saying?

Yeah. More than 9/11. There was actually a slight improvement in American public perceptions of Muslims directly after 9/11 versus right before. There was no change in American perception of Islam and violence directly after the Boston bombing, but there was an 8-point increase in that perception among Republicans during the 2012 presidential campaign. Now, what’s interesting about the Trump effect is it’s complicated. Among Republicans, there is, as expected, more anti-Muslim sentiment during his campaign. But among Democrats, it’s had the opposite effect, where Democrats are actually much more positive about Muslims than they were before. So overall when you look at the entire American public, Trump has actually had a slight positive net effect when you look at American perceptions of Muslims.

I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but I know something similar has happened with trade, which is that Republicans have become more negative about trade deals in the past two years, but Democrats have become much more positive. This does suggest that if you had leaders in power on both sides who were willing to rhetorically be better in how they talk about Muslims, that it could make a real difference. I guess Bush got a lot of credit for the way he talked about Islam after 9/11, although it seems like you’re saying that even if that did have a positive effect, it was thrown away by the results of the campaign to launch a war in Iraq a year and a half later.

Yeah, exactly. He did actually behave quite responsibly directly after 9/11, and the polls reflected that. People were actually more positive than they were right before 9/11, including his base. But you’re right, it was thrown away in the drum up to the Iraq war.

Were you surprised at all by what I thought was the most shocking finding about Muslims and so many people thinking they should be denied the right to vote?

I was quite surprised by that, but at the same time, it made sense with the other findings. It’s the natural logical outcome of believing that an entire community is a pool of suspects. I think it’s important to note with [the voting] finding as well as the link with authoritarianism that in the end, really, fear kills freedom, and people, even those who claim to care about individual liberty, will think and behave in opposition to their values and their interests when they’re afraid.