A study conducted by Cornell University’s communications department reports that opinion on civil rights for Muslims in the country is divided. Forty-four percent of the people surveyed say that some form of restrictions should be placed on the civil liberties of Muslims living in the United States.
Conducted last year between Oct. 25 and Nov. 23, the nationwide study consisted of interviews with participants from 715 households in which they were questioned about various civil liberties restrictions.
While the majority of those polled said civil restrictions should not be placed on Muslims, 37 percent responded that Muslims should have to register their whereabouts with the government. More than a quarter also said that mosques should be closely monitored, while 29 percent said undercover officers should monitor the fundraising activities of Muslim volunteer and civic organizations.
James Shanahan, principle investigator of the study and a communications professor at Cornell University, said the findings “indicate a latent fear” among Americans.
She added that she hoped fear would not lead Americans to make decisions about civil liberties that they would later regret.
To gauge basic knowledge of Islam, participants were asked to answer two questions about the Islamic faith — to state the name by which Muslims refer to God (Allah) and to name the Islamic holy book (the Koran). Roughly a quarter of respondents answered neither question correctly, and another 20 percent answered one question correctly. Twenty-seven percent of respondents agreed “Islamic values and beliefs are very similar to Western/Christian values and beliefs.”
Anthropology Prof. Andrew Shyrock, an expert on Muslims in America, said he thinks American ignorance and geopolitics are both explanations for those who want to restrict the civil liberties of Muslims.
“The U.S. is involved in imperial projects in the Middle East that are very unpopular in the region,” he said. “People resist these projects. Sometimes they use Islam to organize their opposition, sometimes they use nationalism, sometimes it’s a local mix of the two.”
Aisha Jukaku, Muslim Students Association vice president, said as a Muslim, she has personally experienced discrimination because of her race and religion, saying she has been verbally assaulted in the past.
Jukaku said the University and MSA have taken extensive measures to educate the campus community about Islam and ensure the safety of Muslim students on campus since the start of the war on Iraq.
“We have put on community service events and education workshops, in an effort to work together and understand more about (Islam.) We are always looking for new ideas and new ways to help people understand more,” she said.
Some students on campus felt that civil restrictions for Muslims were unnecessary.
“These ideas come directly from the 9/11 bombings. These terrorists happened to be Muslims, and automatically everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists,” said LSA sophomore Andy Michalsky. “One incident is not enough to stereotype a whole religion,” he said.
The study investigated correlations between support for restrictions on civil liberties of Muslims and political ideology, religiosity and television news exposure.
Erik Nisbet, a Cornell communications graduate student and contributor to this study, said that it found “The more religious you are, the more you watch TV news and the more conservative you are, the more likely you are to support these restrictions.”
Nisbet said exposure to TV news is probably the biggest factor influencing support of restrictions.
“On TV, (Americans) are seeing images of war, images of Americans and Muslims overseas clashing and images of possible terror alerts. Obviously this may lead to fear or misperceptions of Muslims.”
Shryock said the University plays a large role in resolving and correcting misconceptions about Islam and should make it a high priority to educate students.
“I think we need to commit our best intellectual and political efforts to explaining what civil liberties are, why they are important and why protecting the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. will make all of us more secure — not less,” he said.
The University has given this semester a Middle Eastern theme, offering classes, lectures and other events on Middle Eastern culture and religion.
Shyrock said attitudes such as these are found in Southeastern Michigan and also extend to Arab Americans, as he found in a study he conducted in 2003 of Detroit Arabs and non-Arabs.
“We found that 49 percent of the general population supported increased surveillance of Arab Americans, and 41 percent believed it would be acceptable to detain “suspicious” Arabs or Muslims without evidence to prosecute,” Shyrock said. “Only 17 percent of Arab Americans agreed on the surveillance question, and only 12 percent agreed on detention.”
Shryock said the reverberations of the findings of this study are being felt across the Muslim community. Many are afraid studies like these will plant the seeds for future restrictions on their civil liberties.
The Muslim community is afraid studies like these are “testing the currents of public opinion to see what the reaction will be to new restrictions on civil liberties,” said Shryock.
The tendency to confuse “Muslim” with “Arab” shows that the animosity is racial as well as religious.
“Most Americans don’t know that Arabs living in the U.S. are majority Christian. They also don’t know that most Muslims, in the U.S. and globally, are non-Arab,” Shryock said, “They just know that Arab and Muslim are two labels closely associated with each other. There’s also a pervasive sense in America that these labels describe people who, unless they constantly and loudly proclaim otherwise, belong to ‘the enemy camp.’”