A recent poll released by the Brookings Institution in Washington found that a significant number of Americans feel hostility toward Muslim-Americans, while little more than half see them in a favorable light.
The survey was part of a large-scale collaborative study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is a collaboration supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts between the Brookings Institution, the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the Georgetown University Public Policy School.
Respondents in the survey, chosen from a pool of registered American voters, were asked whether they would say their overall opinion of Evangelical Christians, Jews, Catholics, Muslim-Americans, atheists was "very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable."
The poll also revealed that Jews and Catholics scored significantly higher, with nearly eight-in-ten having positive impressions.
Meanwhile, the analysis showed that only 11 percent of those surveyed ranked their Muslim-Americans as 'very favorable,' 39 percent as 'mostly favorable,' 13 percent as 'mostly unfavorable,' 8 percent as 'very unfavorable,' 2 percent as 'never heard of,' and 27 percent as 'can't rate.'
Those responsible for making up the survey believe that had the questions been about Muslims instead of Muslim-Americans, as they made the questions about Jews or Catholics, they "would have gotten a much more negative view..."
If people act based on their attitudes, then the Pew Research Center findings on American voters' attitude or 'hostility' to toward Muslims largely accounts for the great number of anti-Muslim stereotyping and discrimination that occur on a daily basis--cases that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other American Muslim activist groups are overwhelmed to deal with.
The University of Pennsylvania Professor George Gerbner would explain this phenomenon as "cultivation effect," which refers to the long-term formation of perceptions and beliefs about the world as a result of exposure to the media. According to Gerbner, heavy television viewing 'cultivates' attitudes that are more consistent with the world of television than with the realities of everyday life.
We Muslims feel this so-called cultivation effect all the way down to our bones. A multitude of our fellow citizens perceive us the way the media stereotype us. Public officials ignore our concerns and voices in policy making and administration. Worse yet, when we approach the mainstream media for being fair, accurate, and balanced in covering us, we are usually shrugged off. When we invite people to our mosque open houses, few show up. We can't influence the media, nor can we reach out to the people with information about who we are.
Yet, contrary to Gerbner's thesis, people's attitudes are influenced not only by TV but also by other media, by direct experience, by other people, and so on. The media can't always hypnotize people. People have the capacity to accept, negotiate, or reject messages that they receive from the media. Psychologist Leon Festinger would even go further to say that people act and then form an attitude. In a sense, there's little difference between the two theories--one says media shapes attitudes and the other would say people act (e.g., watch television) and then form an attitude.
We must realize that people have the potential to make good judgment, which is a pure essence of humanity given by God. This is why Americans of all beliefs and colors are increasingly accepting Islam, despite our failure to reach out to them. This is why many of them are joining the caravans of Muslims, despite being enslaved for hundreds of years, despite being brainwashed by the media, and despite living in the margins or the center positions in society. Furthermore, they are providing superior leadership for the American Muslim community.
While many people are appreciating the excellence of Islam in this way, we should strive to expedite the process of understanding Islam. What we have done so far isn't enough. We must embark on a program of 'recultivating' Islam in America--a program of living Islam in its true spirit and reaching out to people of all beliefs and opinions--a program that is simultaneously centered in the Muslim individuals, families, and communities. In doing so, we must learn from the communicational experiences of our cousin communities.
We can recultivate the image of Islam and Muslims in America by living Islam fully. To live Islam fully, we must be examples of what Islam directs us to be. The text of Islam is superior, but people do not see the text alive until we live it, and until they see examples of the text in our lives. For example, we must give the rights that belong to our neighbors. If we not look after the well being of our neighbors, if we do not meet, greet, respect, and help them, then we are not living Islam in its true spirit.
To recultivate the positive image of Islam, we must gather and use the knowledge of communicating with people. For example, if people do not respond to our open invitation for a mosque open house, we must reevaluate why. Why should they come to our Mosque open houses? Did we know and tell them personally, individually? Did we invite them to our homes occasionally holding "neighbor days?" Did we build a rapport or, in the Qur'anic terms, 'human kinship' with them to obligate their attendance?
Going beyond the intimate person-to-person communication, we can use the field-tested communication and social marketing techniques. That is to present our ideas, artifacts, and cultures in a way that people feel prompted to visit us, to read and know about us. We do not have museums of natural history yet, but we can ask school administrations to schedule school visits to our museum of natural life on days we hold mosque open houses. Once the kids have a view of Muslims as real, living human beings, as ones "like us," they will be equipped with the ability to act upon their pure human essence (fitrah) and reject the stereotypical suggestions that the media circulate.
This same approach can be replicated differently with the people of the media and politics. Once we visit with the media people and let them know we are real human beings who share their values of truthfulness and fairness in reporting, most of them with the exception of a few who hold an unfair agenda will respect our concerns. The outcomes of a recent CAIR-arranged meeting of the Muslim community representatives with the journalists of The Orange County Register should corroborate this view. Following that meeting, the newspaper that once frequently published news and views 'hostile' to Muslims now has fairly and accurately covered Muslim affairs and questioned U.S. policies that victimize Muslims.
To recultivate the image of Islam in America, then, is to live Islam in full and communicate with people on personal level giving them the rights, not favors, that belong to them as our kins in humanity (our neighbors, school children, journalists, colleagues, and so forth). I consider this one best way to reduce American hostility toward Islam and Muslims.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.
(You can read more of the Pew Research Center report by going to http://www.people-press.org/reli00rpt.htm.)