Islam and the Midterm Elections

Islam and the Midterm Elections

The midterm-election debate over Islam reflects U.S. voter anxiety towards Islam, fears of terrorism, and ongoing national cultural and ethnic changes, says religion and politics expert John Green.  

October 19, 2010 8:46 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The midterm election campaign debates over mosques near Ground Zero and elsewhere--as well as calls to ban sharia law by some congressional candidates--highlight a growing tension over Islam in the United States. John C. Green, senior research adviser at the nonpartisan think tank Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that while voters are primarily concerned about jobs and the economy, they may also feel growing anxiety about Islam and the cultural and ethnic changes in the country. "I think that the negative rhetoric is likely to die down after the election," he says. "But I suspect that these issues will continue for several years, because the underlying trends are unlikely to be altered."

A recent Pew interactive shows controversies over mosques are popping up around the country, and not just about the mosque near Ground Zero. Why is this issue coming up with such vehemence now instead of, say, following the 9/11 attacks?

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Public opinion of Islam has not changed that much over time. Americans, on balance, have a less favorable view of Islam and of Muslims than they do of other religions or of other religious groups. The change we’ve seen recently has been an increase in the level of ambivalence. One reason is the continuing issue of terrorism and also the continuing involvement of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the fact that we’ve had some well-publicized terrorist incidents in the United States, fortunately many of them not successful in the sense of injuring or killing a lot of people. The longer a situation persists, the more likely it is to influence public opinion.

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Another issue is the Islamic population in the United States is growing very rapidly. The biggest reason for that growth has been immigration. The American Muslim population is very diverse. It comes from Muslim countries all over the world. It’s also dispersed. Many of the disputes over mosques reflect the fact that Islamic centers and mosques are appearing in places where the local population didn’t anticipate that that would happen.

I don’t want to minimize this at all. This is a potential problem, particularly its foreign policy implications. But there is a history of reacting negatively to new religious or ethnic groups that move into a particular community. And these controversies over mosques to some extent need to be seen in that light.

Islam has become a major topic in this midterm election cycle. How has Islam been injected into the midterms and what impact is it having?

The economy is by far the dominant issue in the campaign--the economy and jobs. But certainly Islam, the mosques in New York City, and foreign policy issues [such as terrorism] have become injected into the campaign in a way that may surprise many analysts. Given the tremendous focus that Americans have on the economy and the unemployment situation, it may seem a little odd that these issues are arising.

They’ve really arisen from both sides. We have some examples in Republican primaries where candidates have sort of fallen all over each other to indicate how opposed they were to the mosque in New York City. But we also had a case on the Democratic side down in Florida, where an incumbent Democratic member of Congress labeled his Republican opponent as Taliban Dan--again, picking up not directly on Islam, but on an Islamic group that’s unpopular. Candidates have raised these issues partly to distinguish themselves from their rivals, but also partly as a means to criticize their opponents.

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Several campaigning politicians have cited sharia law. There’s a referendum in Oklahoma, for example, that would forbid sharia’s use in court cases. In some cases it’s being represented as a security risk, similar to Cold War fears over communism. How much does this fear of sharia and terrorism play into the elections and this debate over Islam?

Both the issue of terrorism and the issue of sharia law and its possible application in the American context play into the current election. But they’re somewhat different fears. There are a significant number of Americans--particularly on the right, but on the left as well--who are suspicious of courts, and worry that [sharia] law would be incorporated into American law through the process of common law. As an observer of American politics and policy, my reaction is that those fears are probably fairly unrealistic. But from a political point of view, perception is really the critical thing. Some people worry about terrorism because they’re afraid that it will ultimately lead to the imposition of sharia law. But most people seem to be afraid of terrorism really for more security purposes.

What both of these things point to is a high degree of ambivalence and anxiety on the part of many American voters toward Islam and to a lot of other cultural and ethnic changes going on in the United States, but also a certain anxiety about America’s position in the world. The parallel to the Cold War is useful. There was a time in which many Americans expressed both specific and generalized anxiety about their country in terms of fear of communism. That’s not to suggest that fear of communism was entirely unreasonable. But to many people this became part of a broader anxiety, a broader concern about their status, their situation, and the direction of the country.

I think we want to be careful not to overstate the similarities between communism and the Cold War and concern about Islam, because there are some really important differences. Very few Americans ever agreed with communists or supported the Communist Party. But there are plenty of Americans who are very open to ethnic and religious diversity and are pleased that we have a growing Islamic population, are happy to invite Muslims to participate in American society. So we don’t want to draw too close of a parallel, but there are some similarities in that people have concerns and anxieties that are expressed around those matters.

You’ve used the term "ambivalence" a lot. Do you mean Americans polled don’t have an opinion about Islam?

In public opinion research, "ambivalence" means that people can’t make up their minds. More often than not, people who are ambivalent toward a politician, toward a group, toward an issue, just don’t know what to believe and might be pulled in two directions at once. One could imagine an American who thinks that Muslim Americans are decent people but also worries about terrorism and therefore feels ambivalent.

[T]here is reason to believe these conflicts will ebb as Muslims become more accepted in the United States and as some of the controversy surrounding them dies down.

And that’s really the most important change in public opinion in recent times--this increased ambivalence toward Islam. You see it in another Pew report, which was issued in August, about President Obama’s religion. About 18 percent of Americans told us they thought Obama was a Muslim, which was up a good bit from during the campaign. But in some ways, the most interesting finding in that poll wasn’t the number about the perception that think Obama is a Muslim, but there was a plurality of Americans that didn’t know what his religion was. A lot of Americans are unwilling in a poll to commit to saying, "Yeah, Obama’s a Muslim," or, "Yeah, Obama’s a Christian," because they’re unsure and they don’t know what to think. So, we do see this increased ambivalence across a lot of different measures.

A recent Newsweek poll (PDF) found that about 30 percent of the people polled either definitely or probably suspected that Obama had sympathies with the goals of Islamists who wish to impose sharia. What does this reflect about how people feel about Obama’s foreign policy toward Muslims and issues like the war in Afghanistan?

That opinion in part reflects some of the negative views that people have about President Obama. Some of those views date from the campaign. But since then, his job approval rating has dropped in large measure because of the economic situation. Part of that lack of popularity of Obama certainly feeds into these concerns.

Many people have heard President Obama speak favorably about Islam. Some people feel he’s too sympathetic to Islam and that his administration has not been as committed to security against terrorism. So there are a lot of factors that feed into that. That the United States is at war in a part of the world that Muslims are the majority, in Iraq and Afghanistan, plays into these opinions as well.

Thirty percent is a high number for a question like that. But it’s important to remember that that’s not a majority of Americans by any means. So we may have some people in that group that never much cared for the president, but there may be other people who--either because of domestic policy or foreign policy--have become increasingly skeptical of the president and therefore willing to believe that he has these kinds of sympathies.

Does this die down after the elections? How does it affect Obama’s foreign policy going forward?

The negative rhetoric is likely to die down after the election. But I suspect these issues will continue for several years, because the underlying trends are unlikely to be altered. The difficulties the United States has in foreign policy with Islamic nations and with the issue of terrorism are not likely to go away soon. Whoever is president is going to have to deal with these issues, and their policies are likely to be held to a high level of scrutiny. The Islamic population will continue to grow in the United States. The dispersion of the Islamic population is likely to continue as well.

In the longer term, there is reason to believe these conflicts will ebb as Muslims become more accepted in the United States, and as some of the controversy surrounding them dies down. That has been the pattern for most religious and ethnic groups in American history. But it can take a generation or two for people to feel more comfortable.

There’re two parts to this process. One is that the broader society becomes more tolerant and accepting of the religious and/or ethnic group. Also, the ethnic groups assimilate. If we look at the scale of a generation, American history suggests that eventually these problems get resolved, partly because people just simply become more accepting of one another, but partly because some of the underlying issues fade.

If there’s another high-profile successful attack these issues will get worse?

The longer terrorism is an issue, the more sensitive Americans will become to terrorist attacks, particularly if they cause a great deal of damage. Now, public opinion on this can be quite variable. Oftentimes, right after a major attack, there’s a period of national solidarity and even a greater tolerance. [But] if there are future terrorist attacks on American soil, many Americans will perceive this as an unsolved problem. And that, I think, will lead at least to the continuing of the trends that we’ve been talking about. But it could be that a lot of Americans who feel ambivalent about Islam and Muslims may switch over to feeling negative or unfavorable if we have these kinds of high-profile tragedies.


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