By Brian Calfano, Nazita Lajevardi, and Melissa R. Michelson
President Biden’s reversal of the Trump administration’s travel ban on Inauguration Day fulfills a central campaign promise. Now, travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries will be allowed entry to the United States. This has brought considerable hope to Muslims living in this country and their families.
But there is a further challenge, one that affects not only travelers from Muslim-majority countries but also Muslims already living in the United States, including those who are American citizens. Public polling and our research show Muslims in the U.S. continue to face public dislike and outright discrimination. Even when U.S. Muslims demonstrate their support of democratic values, bias persists.
Many Americans have a negative perception of Muslims
Opinion polls conducted since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 show unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims and Islam are quite common, particularly among conservatives and Republicans. For example, in a 2017 survey, the non-Muslim public thinks only about half (56 percent) of American Muslims want to “fit in” and be part of the United States. Republicans say only 36 percent of American Muslims want to fit in, while Democrats believe this characterizes 67 percent of American Muslims.
In Pew Research Center surveys, Americans feel less favorably toward Muslims than any other of the nation’s religious groups, including atheists.
Moreover, about six out of ten American Muslims said in a 2020 survey that they experienced religious discrimination — a larger fraction than in any religious group. Just over half (51 percent) said they encountered religious bullying.
This continued bias is striking because surveys show the vast majority (85 percent) of Muslims in the U.S. express a strong “American” identity. This is equivalent to the prevalence of American identity among Protestants.
A possible strategy for changing perceptions of Muslims
American Muslims’ attachment to the U.S. raises a possibility: Could seeing American Muslims serve their country and upholding traditional democratic ideals could help non-Muslim Americans feel differently? Signaling conformity to a nation’s dominant social and political customs should engender greater social acceptance.
Indeed, Muslim Americans are already increasingly prominent in public office, including Congress. Biden also promised to appoint Muslims to his administration and did so by selecting Sameera Fazili as deputy director of the National Economic Council. The Harvard and Yale-educated Fazili is an American-born Muslim who previously worked at the Department of Treasury and Federal Reserve.
How we did our research
We explored whether commitment to democratic norms could improve perceptions of Muslims in a 2018 survey of 1,500 non-Muslim residents of California, Michigan and Ohio. Data were collected from July 18-23 using Lucid Theorem’s nationally representative respondent panel. The research is forthcoming in the Cambridge journal Politics & Religion.
Respondents to the survey took part in a randomized experiment. Each respondent read a news story that described how the leader of a local organization had organized deliberative forums where city council candidates made public statements. The story quoted him describing his work as “a place for city residents to deliberate on the issues that affect us all” and the forum as an “opportunity for the public to hear from council candidates, and to make up their own minds about those who might best lead the city in the coming years.” Most importantly, the news story varied whether the leader’s religious and ethnic identity was provided at all and then whether he was described “Muslim,” “Arab,” or “Arab and Muslim.”
But after reading the story, respondents who read about the Muslim leader described him as less trustworthy, compared with respondents who read about the leader whose religious and ethnic identity was not identified. The leader identified as “Arab and Muslim” was also rated less favorably, although not as favorably as the leader identified as “Muslim” alone.
Notably, the leader described as “Arab” was not evaluated less favorably. This suggests identity as Muslim is the important cause of people’s attitudes. Other evidence suggests this may be due to perceptions of Islam as a fundamentalist form of religion. Economist Marie-Ann Valfort’s experimental work shows discrimination against Muslims increases when they are perceived as more religious.
Thus, preexisting public resentment of Muslims appears to reduce positive perceptions of Muslim people, even when non-Muslim Americans encounter exemplary Muslims endorsing “American” norms through their actions.
Other Muslims could fare even less well. Muslim visitors to the U.S. may elicit even less trust, given that they have less history of attachment to the U.S. Muslim women also face particular discrimination, particularly if they wear a hijab. As hate crimes expert Barbara Perry notes, this gendered Islamophobia contrasts with patterns of hate crimes against other groups, in that usually men are more likely to be victims.
Given time, it’s possible that rescinding the travel ban and installing accomplished American Muslims in key government posts may improve public perceptions of Muslims. But Biden’s efforts, while more welcoming than Donald Trump’s, is no harbinger of major change in the resentment Muslims, both near and far, confront.
Brian Calfano (@Bcalfano) is an associate professor of political science and journalism at the University of Cincinnati.
Nazita Lajevardi (@NazitaLajevardi) is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University.
Melissa R. Michelson (@profmichelson) is a professor of political science and dean at Menlo College.