Do Americans Hate Muslims?

America was built on the notion of religious freedom; that’s why it’s such an important part of the Constitution. But that principle faces a huge test today.

The 9/11 trauma is understandably still a raw wound, and the war against terrorists is far from over. But what does that have to do with a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero?

The 9/11 attacks caused the largest loss of American life in a single day since the Civil War. It’s hardly surprising that we want to honor the dead, avenge the attack and make sure it doesn’t happen again. And it’s no surprise that this creates real unease in how the public feels about Islam. It wasn’t the religion that attacked America, but those who did attack were all members of that religion. President George W. Bush made a deliberate effort to differentiate and demonstrate that we were at war with Islamic terrorists, not with Islam. President Barack Obama has gone even further in trying to reach out to the Muslim world. But the message seems to be falling on deaf ears here at home.

The prejudice is evident and hard to stamp out. The flap over plans to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York demonstrates that. So do the astounding results of a poll Pew Research released today.

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Most Americans think it is insensitive for Muslims to want to build a center just two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack. Perhaps it is. But the anger also means that, despite all the rhetoric, we do blame Muslims, in general, for the attack. We’re not talking about a center for al Qaeda, after all, we’re talking about a center for Islam. We wouldn’t object if the plan was to build a church or synagogue, so on what grounds other than religious prejudice do we object to a mosque? And if two blocks is too close, what about four blocks? Or eight? Why are people in Tennessee protesting plans to build an Islamic center outside Nashville? Are we going to object to all mosques on U.S. soil?

The situation was difficult enough before Obama blundered into it last weekend. His comments Friday defending the right to build the center on private property were widely interpreted as a strong endorsement of the idea. He didn’t exactly say that -- and he clarified his statement Saturday -- but you can’t blame people for reading his remarks the way they did. Almost no one questions the legal right to build the mosque, so if that’s all he wanted to say, there was no need for Obama to speak out. The issue is whether it’s a good idea, and Obama clearly bungled whatever message he was trying to send. As Michael Gerson pointed out in a must-read column in Sunday’s Washington Post, “Obama managed to collect all the political damage for taking an unpopular stand without gaining credit for political courage.”

Then comes a Pew Research poll today finding that the number of Americans believing Obama is a Muslim (he isn’t) is rising -- to 18%, from 11% in March 2009. Only 34% say he is a Christian (he is), down from 48% in 2009. Of course, the poll results say more about the media and the public -- all of it troubling -- than they do about Obama.

Those who believe Obama is a Muslim are much more likely to disapprove of his policies. That’s not a coincidence. If you don’t like someone, it’s easier to think he is an outsider, different from you in culture and philosophy and religion. Or maybe if you think someone is a outsider, especially if you believe he’s a member of a group which you see as America’s enemy, it’s easier to dislike him.

The poll also shows the media have failed to do their job of telling the true story. Right-wing talk shows have, in fact, done their best to undercut the truth, treating the fact of Obama’s Christian religious upbringing and faith as a matter of debate at best rather than the fact it is.

How we got to this state is less important than how we get out of it. It would help if more public figures of all ideological stripes would forcefully deny that the president is a Muslim. Even Glenn Beck ought to be willing to do that.

Insisting on a debate that begins with facts rather than myths isn’t to take Obama’s side. It’s the prerequisite to a meaningful discussion on this and a whole host of others.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter