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Letter from the Editor

John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief

One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.

John L. Esposito

Dear Reader,

Every year, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) publishes its American Muslim Poll, a survey that gathers identical information from American Muslims alongside the general public—which is then broken out into Jewish people, the major Christian denominations (Protestant, Catholic, and white Evangelicals), and non-affiliated people.

For the past two years, The Bridge Initiative in the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University has partnered with ISPU to produce this report. And on May 1, the fourth annual poll was launched under the title Predicting and Preventing Islamophobia. I would like to share some of its most important—even surprising—findings.

During his candidacy, Donald Trump warned that "Islam hates us," called for a Muslim ban on immigration, and was open to monitoring mosques or even shutting them down. The American Muslim Poll 2019 report demonstrates that now-President Trump has not secured majority support for his job performance from any faith or non-faith group measured by ISPU—except for white Evangelicals, with 73% approving of Trump.

More than two years into a Trump presidency, Muslims are still the least likely group surveyed to approve of the President’s job performance (just 16% approve, as compared to 39% of the general public).

Despite this, ISPU’s poll from 2017 revealed a surprising result: Muslims shared a relative optimism about the country, reporting the highest level of satisfaction with the country’s trajectory across all major faith groups and the non-affiliated. At the time, many readers of the poll thought this pattern may have been a function of the timing of the survey, with fielding taking place mostly prior to Donald Trump taking office, and with the possible harm he could do still limited to just that: a possibility. It is somewhat remarkable, then, that—given multiple attempts to institute a so-called “Muslim ban,” the rescinding of DACA, and the moving of America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (to name just a few controversial actions affecting this community)—in 2019 Muslims reported the highest levels of optimism in the direction of the country, with 33% of Muslims expressing optimism, more than any other faith group or those without an affiliation surveyed. This optimism splits along racial and gender lines: white Muslims (43%) are more likely than African American Muslims (20%) to be upbeat, while Muslim women (70%) are more likely than Muslim men (58%) to be pessimistic about the future.

Things get more complicated when calculating ISPU’s second-annual Islamophobia Index, which asks respondents about their agreement or disagreement with five negative stereotypes associated with Muslims in America. The survey asks if the respondent agrees or disagrees that Muslims are more prone to violence; if they are more likely to discriminate against women; if they are less civilized than other people; if they are hostile to the United States; and if they are at least partially responsible for acts of violence committed by other Muslims. While the general public scored a 28 (on a scale of 1 to 100), up from 24 in 2018, the group with the highest anti-Muslim bias was white Evangelicals, with a calculated score of 35 (down from 40 in 2018, when first measured). Muslims themselves earned an average of 14 on the scale, the lowest of all faith and non-faith groups we measured in 2019.

The group expressing the lowest amount of anti-Muslim sentiment, besides Muslims themselves, were Jews, who scored 18 on the Islamophobia Index as a group. ISPU’s poll turned up a wealth of information about how Muslims and Jews perceive each other, which suggests that the groups tend to mirror each other’s views, and are much more likely to view the other group favorably than unfavorably (45% of Muslims polled held favorable opinion of Jews, with just 10% holding unfavorable views; conversely, 53% of Jews held favorable views of Muslims, with just 13% holding unfavorable views).

The second year of the Islamophobia Index included an exploration of drivers of Islamophobia, including data that showed strong predictors of low Islamophobia: being a Democrat; holding favorable views of other minorities, including black Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, and Jews; and knowing something about Islam. Moderate predictors of low Islamophobia include knowing a Muslim, viewing feminists favorably, and having a high income.

The study included an exploration of what “knowing a Muslim” means and how it impacts levels of Islamophobia. Jews were the most likely of any group measured to know a Muslim, with 76% saying they knew one, compared to 53% of the general public and just 35% of white Evangelicals. Islamophobia is further reduced, according to the study, when an individual does not just know a Muslim, but considers that person a close friend. (An individual who does not know a Muslim averages 35 on the Islamophobia Index; someone with a Muslim acquaintance scores 22; and someone with a Muslim friend close enough that they would call that person for help scores just 18.) This trend continues along racial lines. When respondents were broken down by race, Hispanic Americans were both most likely to have a Muslim friend, and the least likely to be Islamophobic.

The American Muslim Poll also explores Muslim civic engagement. Although just 16% of American Muslims approve of Trump’s job performance (a sharp decline from the 78% approval then-President Barack Obama garnered in 2016’s poll), Muslims are the least likely group measured to be registered to vote (73% registered versus 90% of the general public). Still, registration numbers are trending up since ISPU began measuring in 2016 (when just 60% were registered).

Muslims and Jews were also the most likely groups we measured to have voted Democrat in the 2018 midterms. With the 2020 general election around the corner, activists will be interested in the predictors of Muslim voters this study found, which include age (Muslims over 50 are more likely to vote), mosque attendance (weekly service attendees are more likely to vote), and high income. However, the biggest predictor of voting in the midterms among Muslims was previous contact with a local elected official over the last year, showing that civic engagement is the biggest driving force to the polls.

While prominent figures such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (both elected to Congress in 2018) have come to represent American Muslims in the popular imagination, they are at the forefront of a much larger movement, which has seen young Muslims more active and engaged in the political process, especially locally.

The next election cycle will almost certainly see more members of the community elected to public office, while even more Muslims will reach voting age. These efforts have already gone beyond the immediate concerns of the Muslim community, and have extended to some of the major causes of the 21st century, from climate change to wealth disparities and civil rights. Like other groups who were previously perceived as outsiders, Muslims will use this experience to help transform the country into a more open and inclusive society.

Thank you again for your continued support of our work here.


John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
June 2019

Want to learn more about Islamophobia? Visit The Bridge Initiative.

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