Popular antipathy to a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero is so fierce that even President Barack Obama, the nation’s Islamophile-in-chief, “clarified” his August 11 statement supporting the plan to say, “I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.” It is not just a mosque, of which there are two in the neighborhood, but a symbol of Islamic presence. The most recent CNN poll shows an overwhelming 70%-29% margin of opposition.

When liberal politicians – like the president and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg – defend the plan, what they mean is, “We want a big Islamic statement near Ground Zero as a gesture of outreach to the Muslim world.” When the political right denounces it, they mean, “Muslim conquerors always build a mosque atop the ruins of the places they conquer, and we’re not going to give the rascals the satisfaction.” That was predictable.

What is surprising is how passionately Americans oppose the Ground Zero mosque. A revolt is brewing against America’s liberal political elite.

It is hard to find consistent polling data about American attitudes towards Islam. The largest polling organizations, Pew and Gallup, draw funding from organizations with a vested interest in promoting a benign view of Islam. Nonetheless, the results are striking: in a Gallup inquiry [1] published in January 2010, Americans had an “unfavorable” view of Islam by a margin of 53%-42%, with 31% holding a strongly negative view. That contrasts with 15% for Judaism and 4% for Christianity.

Similar results emerge from polls of respective support for Israel and the Palestinians. All the data show overwhelming support for Israel; one recent inquiry [2] shows that 60% of Americans believe that Washington should “take Israel’s side” in the conflict, against only 5% who want to take the Palestinian side, a preponderance of 12 to 1.

Who likes Islam, and who doesn’t? The lines appear drawn sharply. According to a 2007 Pew Foundation survey, two-thirds of liberal Democrats have a favorable view of Islam. Slightly over half of mainline (that is, liberal) Protestants view Islam favorably, but only a fifth of white evangelical Protestants.

Source: Pew Forum

The least religious part of the American public has the most favorable view of Islam as a religion, while the most devout part has the least favorable view. For liberals (and especially for non-religious liberals) all religions are equally bad, or equally good. They all worship some kind of flying spaghetti monster, in Richard Dawkins’ infelicitous phrase, or they all seek a vague sort of “spirituality.”

Devout Christians have a radically different experience of religion. They believe that God loves everyone and act on this belief. More than 100,000 of them serve as missionaries overseas, many in parts of the global south where no other Westerners venture. Their charities are the last resort of the desperately poor.

Evangelicals give US$3,600 per capita per year to charity, the most of any group except for Jews; a quarter of them tithe. Their charities show pictures of the world’s poorest on late-night television, and they risk their lives to deliver help where no one else will. The largest such charity, ChildFund (formerly Christian Children’s Fund) has the lowest overhead ratio of any such organization in the world. And they are more likely than other Americans to have served in the armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The elaborate rationalizations offered by the liberal elite for Muslim violence do not impress them. “Root causes” do not explain what they see on television news. Pentecostalists do not perpetrate suicide bombings against Catholics, the way that Sunni and Shi’ite kill one another in Iraq, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries.

A million and a quarter Americans have rotated through Afghanistan and Iraq, moreover, and what they have seen horrifies them. For the first time, very large numbers of Americans have had direct exposure to the Muslim world. American servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are the main source of Americans’ first-hand knowledge of the Muslim world.

The accumulation of first-hand information may explain why American attitudes toward Islam have hardened since 2001. In November 2001, with the memory of the World Trade Center attacks fresh in their minds, half of Americans told the Pew Forum poll that there was not much difference between Islam and their own religion. By 2007, the proportion had risen to 70%, the same percentage that opposes the Ground Zero Islamic center.

Iraq is the first American war in which soldiers stationed overseas are not fraternizing with the locals. Americans are not hostile to foreigners. On the contrary, American soldiers abroad used to fall for the local girls in huge numbers. American soldiers have brought three quarters of a million brides home since World War II. Only a few hundred American soldiers [3] have requested visas for Iraqi spouses or fiances, by contrast, a vanishingly small number. Unlike all previous American wars, American boys and Iraqi girls don’t fall in love. Part of the problem is security – it’s harder for Americans to fraternize with the locals than in previous wars – but the bigger issue is cultural. Americans and Arab Muslims come from worlds far less compatible than Americans and say, Vietnamese or Japanese.

The viciousness of war in the Middle East, in particular the easy sacrifice of civilian lives by contending forces. The Global Terrorism Database lists 1,868 attacks on religious figures and institutions through December 2008, including 848 bombings – all but a handful perpetrated by Muslims. It is not only that Muslims seem just as willing to kill one another as to kill Christians or Jews, but that they choose to do so in a fashion intended to horrify their enemies and the world.

Never in American history has the gap been greater between the experience of ordinary Americans and the picture of the world drawn by the intellectual elite. Hollywood has not distributed a film about Muslim terrorists for a generation. The major media go out of their way to portray Islam favorably. But when a line is drawn in the sand over a public gesture to Islam, we find a seven to three margin against.

We should conclude from this exercise that America remains a Christian nation in marrow and bone, despite the atheism of its intellectual elite (only a fifth of professors at elite American universities say they believe in God, compared with about nine-tenths of the general population). [4]

Most Americans do not confuse a God of love with whatever radical Muslims might worship. Former president George W Bush told them that Islam was “a religion of peace,” and Obama adds that Muslims “excel in every walk of life” (Americans can’t think of an example, excluding the stray convert among African-American athletes).

What Americans observe, though, is that Islam has produced a large number of individuals enraged enough to kill themselves in order to murder Americans as well as each other. Most Muslims, to be sure, are peaceable folk who want nothing better than to live their own lives undisturbed. But every religion must take ownership of a visible minority that favors violence, and the American public can to some extend be excused for holding Islam to account.

1. See In US, Religious Prejudice Stronger Against Muslims
2. See New Bipartisan Poll Shows Strong American Support for Israel
3. See Love and War Newsweek, October 13, 2007.
4. See More Believe In God Than Heaven Fox News Polls, June 18, 2004.


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