Posted on August 27, 2012 in Washington Watch

It is one thing for American voters to be deeply divided on issues like health care, taxes, and the role of government. These are matters of political philosophy that can and should be debated. But when I see the depth of the partisan, generational, and racial divide on attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, I become frightened, because at stake are the values we claim are central to our definition as a society.

A new jzanalytics poll reveals that Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and American Muslims have the highest overall unfavorable ratings and among the lowest favorable ratings of all the ethnic and religious groups covered in the survey. The poll, conducted for the Arab American Institute, found that while more than seven in ten American voters had favorable attitudes toward mainline Protestant denominations, Catholics, and Jews, less than five in ten were positively inclined towards Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and American Muslims. In fact, Muslims were the only religion to receive a net unfavorable rating, with a score of 40% favorable/41% unfavorable.

Underlying these ratings is a deep partisan divide with the attitudes of Obama and Romney voters toward Arabs and Muslims being mirror reflections of each other. For example, while those Americans who say they intend to vote for Barack Obama give Arabs an 51% favorable/ 29% unfavorable rating and Muslims a 53%/29% rating, those who say they will vote for Mitt Romney give Arabs and Muslims ratings of 30%/50% and 25%/57% respectively.

On closer examination, this partisan divide is grounded in a generational and racial divide. Younger voters (from the ages of 18 to 29), whom my brother John Zogby refers to as "the first globals," give Arabs and Muslims 50/34 favorable/unfavorable rating and Muslims a 53/34 favorable/unfavorable rating. On the other hand, older voters (over 65), whom John calls "the private generation," give Arabs and Muslims much lower 26/39 and 30/48 favorable/unfavorable ratings, respectively. These ratios are matched by the gap between white and "minority" voters—with, for example, only 38% of white voters viewing Arabs favorably, as opposed to 51% of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American voters who report having a favorable view of Arabs.

All of this has an impact on the acceptance on Arab Americans and American Muslims as full participants in American society. When asked to describe their attitude toward an Arab American appointed to a government post, 54% of Obama voters express confidence that an Arab American could do the job, with only 21% expressing the concern that Arab Americans would let "ethnic loyalty influence their decision-making." Among Romney voters, attitudes are exactly the reverse. And the assessment given to American Muslims is even worse, with almost six in ten Romney supporters fearing that Muslims would let "their religion influence their decision-making," and only two in ten confident that a Muslim could do the job to which they were assigned.

This suspicion of and unfavorable attitude toward Arabs and Muslims has its origins in bigotry and ignorance. Public opinion was clearly impacted by the hostile campaign that has been waged in recent years, including: the 2010 anti-Park 51 hysteria that was utilized by some Republicans as a "wedge issue" in that year's Congressional election; the effort in 24 states to pass laws banning Sharia; the call for a special loyalty oath for Muslims seeking government employment that was endorsed by three of the contenders in this year's GOP presidential primary contest; and the witch hunt launched by some Republican Members of Congress against American Muslim Hill staff and government employees.

But bigoted campaigns only partly account for this deep divide. As the AAI poll demonstrates, ignorance is also a factor. Six in ten Americans say that they do not know any Arabs or Muslims. But while one-half of young voters and "minority" voters say they do know members of these groups, three-quarters of older voters and white voters say they do not. And it is important to note that those who do know any Arabs and Muslims have significantly more positive attitudes toward these two communities than those who do not. For example, 56% of those who know an Arab or a Muslim have a favorable view of Muslims, while among those who do not know any Arabs or Muslims, only 32% had a favorable attitude toward Muslims.

It is striking to compare this year’s poll results with those of earlier years. Since most Americans still do not know the difference between Arabs and Muslims, the favorable/ unfavorable ratings given to both communities continue to closely track one another. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that 9/11 is not the cause of these negative attitudes. Attitudes toward both communities were actually better in 2003 and they held steady until 2010 when the organized campaign of incitement against Muslims reached a crescendo with the anti-Park 51 campaign. That year was the turning point in which we recorded the lowest favorable attitudes toward both communities. Ratings have drifted slightly upward since then, but are still below where they were in 2003.

The lesson is as clear as it is dangerous. Left unchecked, those who prey on ignorance and fear to spread hatred, and those who sow the seeds of division and intolerance threaten to tear apart the very fabric of our nation and compromise the values of openness and inclusion that have made America united and strong. The purveyors of intolerance also put at risk the rights and security of entire communities of Americans to operate in our society as full and equal citizens without fear of discrimination. 

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