How Politics Has Divided American Views of Islam

A survey by Pew Research Center has found a disturbingly sharp partisan divide in how Americans view Islam. Some 70 percent of Democrats agreed that the next president should "be careful not to criticize Islam as a whole" when discussing Islamic extremists while only 29 percent of Republicans did. Some two-thirds of the Republicans agreed instead that the next president should "speak bluntly" about Islam even if critical of it as a whole, while just 22 percent of Democrats fell into this group.

That may not surprise you, given the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Republican presidential primary, which contrasts with a stirring speech President Obama gave today at a Baltimore mosque about Muslims in America. But Pew notes that the last time it looked into this topic, back in 2002, there was little difference in the views of Republicans and Democrats.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric became part of the extreme right's brief against Obama, and the toxin spread through much of the Republican body politic. It's partisan, not ideological: conservative and moderate Democrats largely say (64 percent) that the next president shouldn't criticize Islam as a whole, according to the poll. 

Nationally, 50 percent of those surveyed favor the "not to criticize Islam as a whole" approach -- while 46 percent of Catholics do. Forty percent nationally favor the president who'd "speak bluntly," while 43 percent of Catholics do.

In Baltimore, Obama thanked Muslim Americans for their contributions to America, called for more favorable portrayal of Muslims in entertainment media, and urged that other religious groups extend their concern for religious freedom to protection of Islam. 

"And of course, recently, we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country," he said. "No surprise, then, that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged."

 

The speech had many fine moments, but I'll just note the history lesson Obama provided to the Tea Party:

Here’s another fact:  Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim.  And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive.  A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans.  And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans.  And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths -- and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now -- “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” 

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”  So this is not a new thing.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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