Brookings Polls: Americans Seem to Reject Islamophobia After Orlando

by Derek Davison

On Monday, the Brookings Institution released the findings of three polls conducted by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, measuring U.S. public opinion about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. The polls measure attitudes before and after last month’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida allegedly inspired by the Islamic State. The findings, as Telhami detailed in Politico, suggest that American opinions about Islam actually improved following the attack:

Comparing the results of three University of Maryland national polls—all fielded by Neilson Scarborough—taken in November 2015, in May 2016 and in June 2016 (after the June 12th Orlando shooting), the trends are surprising. Asked about their views of the Muslim people, respondents who expressed favorable views went from 53 percent in November 2015, to 58 percent in May 2016, to 62 percent in June 2016. At the same time, favorable views of Islam went from 37 percent, to 42 percent, to 44 percent over the same period—still under half, but with marked improvement over a period of seven months. (See the survey methodology here.)

In parallel, a “clash of civilization” question, asking about the compatibility of Islamic and Western religious and social traditions, showed similar trends. The percentage of those who said the two were compatible went up from 57 percent, to 61 percent, to 64 percent over the three polls.

Although these top-line results may seem counter-intuitive, there is a clear political correlation to these results:

On all three issues, Republican views remained relatively fixed over the three polls. The change occurred among Democrats and Independents. For example, among Democrats, favorable views of the Muslim people rose 12 points. Among independents, that number rose 17 points.

Telhami suggests that anti-Islamic sentiment may becoming increasingly partisan as a “backlash to the backlash” gathers strength among Democrats and some independents. Harsh measures that have been floated at various times by Republican presidential nominee and reality TV star Donald Trump—like banning Muslim entry into the United States, creating a “national database” of Muslims, and legalizing torture of suspected terrorists—may be fueling this counter-backlash. Other results from the poll support this theory. Only 42% of Telhami’s sample viewed Trump’s reaction to Orlando favorably, compared to 52% who were pleased with President Barack Obama’s response and 50% who reacted favorably to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s response.

The poll results align quite closely with research on post-Orlando social media trends conducted by the University of Texas’s Saif Shahin and published in this space last month. In the immediate aftermath of the attack Shahin found an increase in Twitter activity around issues related to Islam and the Islamic State, but amid messages that took a negative view of Islam he also found several messages countering those views:

A casual look at the topic may suggest an upsurge of Islamophobia in this period, and indeed there were several tweets that linked Mateen’s action to Islam and to blaming Muslims as a community. But a large number of tweets also pointed out the folly of such an attitude. One tweet, for instance, read: “Whether this was ISIS or not, to respond with hate and prejudice is exactly what they want. To alienate Muslims around the world. #Orlando.” Therefore, I label this topic The IS (Dis)Connect.

Several Twitter users retweeted a post by the user @KamalFaridi that read “Our heart goes out to the victims and families in #Orlando. Love and peace can never be extinguished. #Pakistan #Muslims.” Others questioned how, despite Mateen’s known IS sympathies, he could be allowed to purchase guns—thus putting the blame once again on U.S. gun laws rather than IS or Muslims per se. A commonly retweeted post, by journalist Piers Morgan, read: “FBI interviewed this guy TWICE about ISIS sympathies but he could still legally buy his guns 2 weeks ago???? Unbelievable.”

One of the long-term trends underlying Americans’ increasingly positive views toward Islam and Muslims may be demographic. As Telhami writes, “Millennials and non-whites tend to hold more favorable views of Islam and Muslims relative to whites and older Americans.” For example, polls (including Telhami’s past research) have repeatedly shown a sharp divergence in the views of younger and older Americans when it comes to Israel and, specifically, the Israel-Palestine conflict. This new polling only further confirms that trend. Younger (age 18-34) Americans were more likely than older (age 55+) Americans to agree with statements like these:

  • “I favor Israel’s democracy more than its Jewishness” (78% to 63%); 68% of middle-aged Americans (35-54) also agreed
  • The United States should “lean toward neither side” in the Israel-Palestine conflict (68% to 57%); 64% of middle-aged Americans also agreed
  • The United States should “Impose some economic sanctions/take more serious action” in response to new Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank (46% to 34%); 39% of middle-aged Americans agreed
  • The Israeli government “has too much influence” over American politics (43% to 32%); here more middle-aged Americans (48%) than younger Americans agreed

Younger Americans were less likely than older Americans or middle aged Americans to agree that Israel should maintain the occupation (12% younger to 19% older to 15% middle-aged) or annex West Bank territory outright (9% to 13% to 15%), and more likely to support either a two-state (36% to 32% to 34%) or one-state (40% to 28% to 32%) solution to the conflict.

Telhami’s survey, not unexpectedly, also found sharp partisan divisions on every Israel-Palestine question. Republicans (and Trump supporters) were more likely than Democrats (and Clinton supporters) to value Israel’s Jewishness over its democracy and to support anti-Palestinian policies like occupation or annexation. Majorities of both Republicans and Trump backers want the U.S. to favor Israel over the Palestinians and to vote against a Palestinian state at the U.N.

Photo by Misha Voloaca via Flickr

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.