Friday, August 12, 2011

Wait... Muslims aren't a monolithic group?

There's been some interest in a recent Gallup report from the Abu Dhabi Gallup organization that investigates the viewpoints of Americans on different topics, splitting them out based on stated religion. The survey also had questions about perceptions of Muslims, splitting these out also by stated religion. This report has been discussed at The Atlantic magazine, and it was nice to see many of the points that seemed so obvious to me when I was growing up in Japan and Taiwan with classmates who were Muslim.

I think that a lot of the reactions to these polling results are quite telling about stereotypes that people hold about other groups -- groups with whom they are not familiar. I grew up internationally, grew up with friends who were Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and (yes) Christian. These weren't people whose families were all about "killing the infidel" and "death to America." Indeed not. On the contrary, they were people who -- although some came from Iran -- intimately knew of the problems that their governments were responsible for (and that some of these were conducted in the name of Islam was also troubling).

However, there is -- I would argue -- no country in the Western world that is officially Christian that also uses Christianity to officially justify imprisonment, war, trade sanctions, etc. To that extent, many people in the West are very prone to making an incorrect association between the political stance of nations that are officially Islamic with the stance of people who practice Islam. For example, Great Britain is officially a Christian country -- the Church of England is the official state church -- but we don't perceive a Christian motivation to their military actions in the Falklands during the 1980s, in Kuwait in the 1990s and in Iraq in the 2000s. We don't point and say, "Look at that! Anglicanism is a war-like religion!" because we understand that there is a difference between the practitioners of it and its position as an official government religion. (Yes, I understand that Thatcher, Major, and Blair didn't invoke Anglicanism when going to war, but I would argue that it (A) is implied in any official action and (B) if doing so were politically expedient -- or politically uncostly -- they would likely have done so.) Even during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most nationalists wouldn't have said that Anglicanism was a violent religion, being able to separate out the difference between the religion of many unionists and their political stance viz Northern Irish independence/merging with Ireland.

To people who say, "Well, if moderate Muslims feel this way about the use of force, etc., then they should be out in the streets protesting against the extremists," I would state two things: 1) many Muslims do speak out against violence that is advocated for by extremists, but they are not picked up in the media (for various reasons), and 2) most people -- regardless of their faith -- are just not that politically motivated to rally for action if they don't see any major benefit or impending disaster that affects them (just like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where were the Anglicans and Catholics out on the streets, rallying for peace? They were there, but see, the previous point as to why most of us don't remember this point.) On this point, the Gallup report says:
That a significant minority of Americans doubt U.S. Muslims’ loyalty to their country seems to suggest they may expect Muslim Americans to somehow prove their loyalty. Similarly, members of the media and the public often ask why Muslim Americans do not speak out against terrorist attacks more often, as if their silence somehow condones such acts. Most major religious groups (including Muslims themselves) are split on this question, with about one-half in each faith group saying U.S. Muslims are obligated to speak out more than others, and one half saying they are not. If Americans of most faiths are split in their perception of Muslim Americans’ obligation to speak out against terrorism, they are not divided in their perception of whether Muslim Americans do so often enough. Most believe they do not. ... That compares with 72% of Muslim Americans, a mismatch suggesting U.S. Muslims have not found the right “bullhorns” to make themselves heard. It also reflects the frustration Muslim Americans often express that their repeated condemnations of terrorism seem to go unheard. (pp 35, 36)
Moving on to a point that wasn't discussed in the report: how -- for many items -- Muslim Americans and No Religion/Athiest/Agnostic Americans (which I will refer to as "Nones" from now on) were more similar to each other than other religious groups. (Yeah, yeah, I know: "Atheism" and "Non-believer" aren't religions, and calling them such falls under a functionalist definition of "religion", which carries with it its own set of problems, but I'm not going to address that here.) When one looked at many of the topics, the patterns were similar between the two groups:

  • Nones were second only to Muslims when it came to a change in perception between George W Bush and Barack Obama (p 19);
  • Muslims and Nones were less than 80% confident with the military (all the other groups were 91-97% satisfied) (p24);
  • Muslims and Nones were less than 70% confident in the FBI (all the other groups were 75-79% satisfied) (p 24);
  • Muslims and Nones are the youngest groups, average ages of 36 and 41, respectively (all other groups averaged 46-55) (p 26);
  • Muslims, Jews, and Nones are more likely to cite the Iraq war as a mistake (67-83% compared to 32-49%) (p 27);
  • Muslims and Nones are more likely to cite the Afghanistan war as a mistake (both at 47% compared to 22-29%) (p 27);
  • Muslims and Nones are more likely to reject military violence against civilians always (79% and 58% compared to 33-43%) and sometimes (21% and 43% compared to 52-64%) (p30);
  • Muslims, Nones, and Jews are more likely to believe that Muslims have no sympathy for Al Qaeda (92%, 75%, and 70% compared to 56-63%) (p 32);
Not surprisingly, there were some major differences between Nones and Muslims, especially when it came to questions of religion, religious tolerance, and religious identity. (Many of the questions didn't really seem to fit with the broad stances that many Nones seem to take, and so I don't really think that the comparisons are valid in this section of the report. Indeed, for many of the topics of religion and spirituality, the report drops the responses of the Nones.)

Finally, I am interested to see how much the responses among Muslims were influenced by prevailing sentiments of many Americans to Muslims, and whether -- if there is greater acceptance of Muslims over time (just like there has been a greater acceptance of Catholics over time) -- their attitudes on these questions will migrate closer to the other segments of American society.

1 comment:

Winter Wind said...

This is a really good post, thoughtful and timely. I'm disturbed at the anti-Muslim sentiments I've encountered even amongst my own family. People need to realise that Muslims are not a monolithic entity, no more than any other religious group.

Once they decide that Islam is bad and not like other religions, confirmation bias does the rest. Some of the individual Muslims I've met have been the most open-minded, tolerant and accepting people I know. I think people from different backgrounds sometimes just need to meet with each other to appreciate that we're not so different.

Like you, I grew up in a very multicultural environment so I guess we're lucky, compared to people who have never met the scary 'other'. It's easy to believe stereotypes when you never have to meet the real people.