Many Muslim Americans had hoped that the death of Osama bin Laden would improve their image among other Americans, but according to a new survey, just the opposite has happened. Findings show that Americans' views of Muslims living in the U.S. only worsened after bin Laden's death. According to the findings, fewer respondents were willing to characterize Muslim- Americans as "trustworthy" and "peaceful," while more respondents supported placing restrictions on Muslim-American civil liberties. For Muslims, perhaps the most troublesome finding was that these negative shifts had occurred among political liberals and moderates, a constituency that had been seen as the most sympathetic to Muslims after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The survey was a joint effort by researchers at Ohio State University, Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. Some of the survey's more stark findings are as follows: Before bin Laden's death, 27 per cent of Americans believed Muslims living in the U.S. "increased the likelihood of a terrorist attack," compared to 34 per cent afterward. Prior to bin Laden's death, nearly half of respondents described Muslim-Americans as "trustworthy" and "peaceful." After his death, only one-third of respondents felt this way. The percentage of Americans who agreed with the statement that "profiling individuals as potential terrorists based solely on being Muslim is wrong" dropped from 71 per cent to 63 per cent. The survey also said the number of respondents unwilling to have a Muslim as a close friend rose from 9 to 20 percent; people who agreed that Muslims are supportive of the United States declined from 62 to 52 percent; and the percentage of liberals who said Muslims made America more dangerous tripled, from 8 to 24 percent. Why is this happening? Erik Nisbet, an assistant professor at OSU's school of communication, said the findings can be attributed to the fact that bin Laden's death was a "focusing event," an occurrence that so widely dominates public discourse that it reactivates "latent implicit attitudes." Sixty-nine per cent of all stories in the U.S. media focused on bin Laden's killing and related topics for a full week after his death, according to the Pew Excellence in Journalism Project. "The only time that Islam is in the media, featured prominently, is around these types of focusing events, whether it's a terrorist attack, bin Laden's death, the Ground Zero controversy," Nisbet told CTV.ca in a telephone interview. "And when you have that kind of media frenzy that's re-living September 11, talking about Islamic terrorism, talking about Pakistan, talking about Afghanistan and associating Islam with terrorism, it's going to prime people to think of it that way, associate Islam with terrorism in general." Nisbet said focusing events "leave some kind of mental residue," which may only last as long as the event dominates the media cycle, but will nonetheless recur. The study was part of an ongoing research program that is examining inter-group relations and the role the media plays in shaping attitudes towards groups such as Latinos and Muslim Americans. For this study, Nisbet said, researchers were conducting a national survey to determine how Americans view Muslim-Americans and their role in American society. When U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U.S. commandos had shot and killed bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan on May 1, the researchers were nearly two-thirds of the way through their survey, which allowed them to compare Americans' perceptions before and after the al Qaeda leader's death. According to Nisbet, the changes in attitudes were evident even after researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, education level, ideology and knowledge of Islam. "So they feel more threatened in general, they feel more threatened from Muslims in the United States specifically, they have more negative perceptions of Muslims," Nisbet said. "This leads to them being more willing to consider restricting Muslim-Americans' civil liberties." Nisbet is especiially concerned with the survey findings that Americans were less willing to socialize with Muslims, including having a Muslim friend. "The best way to overcome prejudice and to promote better inter-group relations and inter-cultural tolerance is through social interaction -- direct, un-mediated social interaction -- through cultural events, cultural exchanges, within social networks," Nisbet said. "But if people, because of what they see or hear in the media, pull back from opportunities to interact with Muslims, well that's unsettling because that makes promoting tolerance and better inter-group relations that much more difficult." Nisbet said a similar spike in negative perceptions of and attitudes towards American Muslims is possible in the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "If there was a similar type of media frenzy with a high level of speculation of a possible follow-up attack combined with this sort of re-examination and re-living the Sept. 11 attacks, then you would probably see possibly another shift," he said. Nisbet said the way to permanently alter the ebb and flow of negative perceptions about Islam and Muslims is to change how media, politicians and the public discuss them. "The media and public discourse has to be more nuanced in how they talk about Islam and the threat from Islamic terrorism," Nisbet said. "When there are these focusing events, they need to approach it where they're not actually inflaming fears unduly, and increasing threat perceptions beyond actual factual basis."
Please write: COMMENT in this box to verify that you are human