US Public Opinion and the "Muslim Terrorist" Misconception

Since 9/11, the War on Terror, and the rise of ISIS, the problem of growing intolerance and fear among the non-Muslim majority towards the Muslim population living in the United States has been exacerbated to a great degree––in such a way that terrorism has come to be misconstrued as a “Muslim threat.” Furthermore, since the election of Donald Trump as president, his contentious rhetoric regarding the threat of Radical Islam has had an incredibly powerful effect on the US population–– influencing political behavior, attitude formation, and people’s perceptions of both practicing Muslims and Islam as a religion. Given all that has happened recently with Trump’s executive order attempting to ban immigrants from seven majority-Muslim Middle Eastern countries, this is an especially controversial political issue that has been brought to the forefront of public discussion, as it directly relates to public policy areas dealing with political tolerance, refugees, and civil rights and liberties. And it needs addressing.

According to a 2017 survey of American Muslims conducted by the Pew Research Center, 3 of the top 5 problems they face today are: ignorance/misconceptions of Islam, Muslims viewed as all being terrorists, and negative media portrayals. Thus, while Trump’s rhetoric has certainly aggravated an ongoing issue, the US population’s negative misconception about the “Muslim terrorist” threat seems to be due to a general lack of knowledge of Islam, a more prevalent tendency to attribute ‘terrorism’ to solely Muslim-committed acts of domestic violence, and constant negative portrayals of Islam via mainstream media.

The word “Islam” literally translates to “submission before God”, and it has the same root as the Arabic word “salaam” which means “peace”. In no way whatsoever does the word suggest war or violence of any kind. “But how do you explain Jihad  and the actions of ISIS then?” many people ask. The truth is I cannot, but neither can any true, practicing Muslim. ISIS is an anomaly that professes to adhere to the Islamic religion, but in actuality, everything it stands for and does lies in direct contradiction to the main principles and tenets of Islam and the core teachings of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are taught that a person cannot be a true believer unless “he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” In other words, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Another common misconception that warrants clarification is that Jihad is the religious-sanctioned call for violent war to repress any who attempt to threaten the practice and spread of Islam. However, in a purely linguistic sense, “Jihad” means “struggling” or “striving”, and in a religious sense, it refers to the personal internal struggle to overcome sin and the effort to become a better Muslim and peaceful informant. It is not a violent concept, and it is not the declaration of war against other religions. With that said, as with any archaic doctrine or religious text, there is much room for subjective interpretation and manipulation. The Quran can be interpreted in different ways by different groups of people just as the Bible can. There are Islamists and fundamentalists of the religion who do interpret the Quran to permit and even encourage the spread of Islam through forceful and, if need be, violent means. However, it can far more easily be interpreted and employed to promote peace and harmony, and this is understood to be its rightful purpose according to the vast majority of practicing Muslims.

Apart from a lack of general knowledge on the basic tenets of the religion, another factor perpetuating the misconception that terrorism in America is a uniquely Muslim threat is the underreporting of both attempted and carried-out terrorist attacks made by various non-Muslim foreign organizations. Despite Trump’s monotonous and questionably chosen rhetoric warning against the dangers of “radical Islamic terrorism” and claiming that “Islam hates us,” a 2013 FBI report revealed 90% of terrorism attacks in America between 1980 and 2005 were carried out by non-Muslims. Islamist extremist domestic terrorist attacks were largely outnumbered by an aggregate of non-Muslim organizations––composed of Jewish extremists, communists, Latinos, and extreme left-wing groups to name a few. A more recent study this year done by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Center for Investigative Reporting found that of the 201 terrorist attacks recorded in the US between 2008 and 2016, 115 were attributed to American right-wing and white supremacist extremists. Think Dylann Roof and Robert Dear. This is almost double that of the number of terrorist attacks carried out by those with professed Islamic affiliation. According to BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas, people prefer to think evil comes from “the others” on the outside who are different from them and not from within, as it naturally affords them a greater sense of comfort and security. This is a gross disillusion.

The last major contributor to the public’s misguided opinion formation of the erroneous “Muslim Terrorist” threat is the American mass media. Constant negative and biased media portrayals of Islam––whether they be repetitive coverage of ISIS executions or exclusive video footage of bloody, violent protest and fighting in the Middle East––perpetuate the stereotyping of Muslims as inherently hateful, violent, and dangerous people.  It is this vicious perpetuation that leads many non-Muslim American citizens to make the assumptive link between Islam and terrorism. However, the problem is inflamed when mere attitudes, ideologies, and perceptions translate into government policy. Studies have discovered that exposure of non-Muslim Americans to negative and violent media portrayals of Islam has led to an increased support for public policies that harm Muslims, whether they take the form of international US military intervention in the Middle East such as in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, or civil liberty restrictions like the recent travel ban here in the country they call “home”.  While mass media is without a doubt guilty of nurturing the systemic misconceptions and stereotypes constructed about Muslims, it is largely up to the viewers––the people of America––to recognize biased coverage and incomplete reporting.

It is important to comment on the influences on public opinion that fuel misguided and incomplete thinking, as bringing awareness to these issues could prevent the future reinforcement of misperceptions and stereotypes surrounding Islam and its followers. In other words, increasing people’s knowledge on the subject can help change their negative opinions towards Muslims, thus affecting their political behavior and making the United States a more inclusive and tolerant country for everyone to live in. To put it simply, domestic terrorism in the United States is not an exclusively Muslim issue. Terrorism––both domestic and international––has no specific face, creed, or color, and is not synonymous with any one religion.