Muslims viewed more negatively than Arabs in US: study

January 7, 2021

Zuleyha Ozonder, left, hands out cards explaining Islam to fair-goers as they exit of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, Minn. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella)

Muslim Americans face greater distrust and prejudice in broader U.S. society on account of their religion than Arab Americans experience based on their ethnicity, even while they engage in quintessentially “American” forms of civic and political participation, new research suggests.

According to an article published in Politics and Religion on Dec. 21, data from a survey experiment reveals the extent of Americans’ negative stereotypes about Muslims, including when compared to views of Arabs as an ethnic identity. 

Even when a hypothetical Muslim American is associated with a “prosocial” behavior typically admired in American civic culture, such as organizing a nonpartisan forum to discuss political issues, researchers found that the link isn’t enough to dislodge prejudices against Muslims. 

“Negative views of Islam paint its followers as monolithic, barbaric, intolerant, violent, and at odds with democratic norms and principles,” wrote co-authors Brian Calfano of the University of Cincinnati, Nazita Lajevardi of Michigan State University and Melissa Michelson of Menlo College. “Our results are fresh evidence that the opportunities for Muslim political incorporation in America remain limited.” 

The researchers set out to determine whether positive information about Muslim Americans participating in democratic deliberation, and contradicting stereotypes of followers of Islam as anti-American, could “nudge” members of the American public toward more positive views of the group.

Calfano, Lajevardi and Michelson also drilled down on the nature of the stereotypes themselves, teasing apart Arab and Muslim social identities in order to better understand whether the two are conflated in the eyes of many Americans.

The researchers developed a survey experiment to gauge the role that Arab, Muslim and Arab Muslim social identities played in respondents’ evaluations of a fictionalized local resident who had organized a city council candidate forum. A total of 1,548 survey participants were recruited from Ohio, California and Michigan -- states with varying Muslim American populations -- and were asked to assess the character’s trustworthiness on a scale of 0, for “completely untrustworthy,” to 10, for “completely trustworthy.”

Respondents from each state were randomly assigned either to the control condition, in which they read about a forum organizer who wasn’t identified by race or ethnicity, or to one of three treatment conditions in which the organizer was identified either as Arab, Muslim or Arab Muslim.

Respondents from all three states on average rated the organizer as less trustworthy relative to the control when he was labeled as Muslim, or as Muslim and Arab — but not when he was identified as Arab alone. 

While the effect was strongest in Michigan, the state with the highest Muslim population relative to its population, the respondent pool from all three states gave the Arab organizer a mean trustworthiness rating of 7.27, the Muslim organizer a rating of 6.23 and the Arab Muslim organizer a rating of 6.53. Respondents exposed to the control condition gave the organizer a rating of 7.06.

The results challenge the notion that greater exposure to a group necessarily yields more positive attitudes toward that group, according to Calfano.

The findings also suggest that the religious identity, rather than the ethnic one, triggers negative assessments of the organizer’s trustworthiness. “Americans hold distinct, negative stereotypes against Muslims in particular, and not against Arabs,” the researchers said.

Calfano told The Academic Times that the difference stems partly from a combination of historical and cultural factors that led Arab Americans to be viewed as closer to a predominantly white American society, and Muslims to be judged largely as outsiders to U.S. culture and civic life.

“A lot of [the difference in attitudes] has to do with the history of the development of the Arab identity in the United States versus [that of] the Muslim community,” he said, noting the Arab community’s religious diversity and distinct immigration wave as compared to much of the contemporary Muslim American populace.

Despite the way media rhetoric over the past 20 years has tended to blend Arab and Muslim identities together, he added, the evidence shows that in the U.S. Muslims in particular face the fundamental challenge of overcoming suspicion from their compatriots.

“If it is the case that Muslim identity itself ends up really being a hindrance to how people are evaluated, essentially, it comes down to: Can you do anything that would satisfy people who are suspicious [of Muslims]?” Calfano said.

The researchers’ findings give reason to think that negative opinions of Muslims are particularly unshakable in the context of American politics. Deeply entrenched views linking Islam and terrorism, for instance, are difficult to counteract and could represent an especially thorny obstacle to Muslims’ full political integration in the U.S.

“It might be that when you put anything in a political context and are talking about Muslims and Islam, you’re not going to see a wholesale movement toward a more positive evaluation [of the group],” Calfano said, adding that non-political engagement might be a more promising path to improving Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims.

A similar survey might have depicted a Muslim individual engaged in volunteering at an animal shelter, he pointed out, a non-political activity “that might be more effective … because people all of a sudden drop the political context.”

Calfano said he’s considering further research on the effects that alternative forms of public engagement might have on Americans’ perceptions of Muslims.

And in order to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, he added, “we still need to tone down a lot of the harsh rhetoric and stereotyping” that allows such negative views to perpetuate.

The article “Evaluating Resistance toward Muslim American Political Integration, published on Dec. 21 in Politics and Religion, was co-authored by Brian Calfano, University of Cincinnati; Nazita Lajevardi, Michigan State University; and Melissa Michelson, Menlo College.

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