Most Americans Want Better Relations With Muslims

But at the same time, large numbers of Americans hold negative views of Islam, according to this new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Most Americans think President Obama’s pledge to “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world is an important goal, even as nearly half hold negative views about Islam and a sizable number say that even mainstream adherents to the religion encourage violence against non-Muslims. …
Majorities of Americans with sympathetic and unsympathetic views about Islam said it is important for the president to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, with those holding more positive views much more likely to call those moves “very important.”

But here is the most interesting finding: Positive views of Islam are higher among two specific groups of Americans: those who say they are not religious, and those who say they are familiar with Islamic teachings and understand something about the religion:

Perceptions of Islam as a peaceful faith are the highest among non-religious Americans, with about two-thirds holding that view. Among Catholics, 60 percent see mainstream Islam as a peaceful faith; it is 55 percent among all Protestants, but drops to 48 percent among white evangelical Protestants.
As in previous surveys, unfamiliarity breeds skepticism: 53 percent of those who profess an understanding of some Islamic teachings view the religion favorably, compared with 31 percent of those who said they do not have that fluency. Those who have such a background are also significantly more likely to see the religion as peaceful. Similar patterns exist for those who know a Muslim. And views of Islam are more positive among those with more formal education.

Obviously, the timing of this poll is linked to Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey, where he gave that major speech in a Muslim city that he promised during his campaign.

I have a few thoughts on that. I know some progressives were hoping he would choose Mecca for his speech, because of the symbolism. Turkey was an interesting and significant choice, however — also lots of symbolism and political messaging. Spencer Ackerman calls it “a clever, multi-layered statement“:

… Obama visits a Muslim capitol as part of his first overseas trip as president; that trip is to Europe; speaking in Ankara implies that, as the Turks want, Muslim Turkey is part of Europe; and cooperation between the West and Islam is the proper order of things. “Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message,” reads the text of his speech. “My answer is simple: Evet.” Yes.

Juan Cole writes that Pres. Obama “… continues to shake up the world with his new ideas, demonstrating himself again among the more creative and bold leaders the world has seen in the past half-century.”

Here is an example of that boldness (emphasis mine):

In a wide-ranging speech before the Turkish Parliament in the capital, Ankara, Mr. Obama extended his campaign of outreach to the Muslim world, painting himself as a man who understands it and would seek to build a bridge between Islam and the West.

“America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not just be based on opposition to Al Qaeda,” he said. “We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.”

He drew applause when he said, “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.”

And in a move with potential political risks at home, he drew on his personal ties to Islam. Introduced as “Barack Hussein Obama,” he told the Parliament that the United States had been “enriched by Muslim-Americans.”

Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country,” he said. “I know, because I am one of them.”

Then he paused. And waited. And, after about five seconds, as the translator caught up, the applause came.

The line was a bold one for Mr. Obama, who has been falsely labeled a Muslim by detractors. The accusations persist on some right-wing Web sites, which may try to interpret the last sentence as proof of those views.

Of course, he did not say he was a Muslim. He said he, like many Americans, have family members who are Muslim, and/or have “lived in a Muslim-majority country.” But Helene Cooper is quite correct in saying the line was a bold move, because the people who continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim are not known for their reading comprehension. And Obama surely knows he was taking a risk, there, of lowering the drawbridge and letting the loonies into the castle. Nevertheless, he knows that his unique (among presidents at least) personal and family background gives him a matchless opportunity to reach out and build trust in a part of the world that has lacked trust in the United States and the West in general for many years. So, despite the fact that he might be giving his detractors at home a weapon to bash him with, he took the opportunity anyway. That, to me, showed courage, integrity, and yes, boldness.

One other thing I was very happy about: Obama’s mention of the Armenian genocide (although he did not use that word). But he did make it clear that history is important, and that when painful events of the past go unacknowledged or unresolved, it “can be a heavy weight.”

I think he got the point across. Moreover, that point was made so much more effective because, before he ever mentioned Armenia, he talked about the painful legacy of our own past. He said the work of democracy is never done.

This is something unheard of before now. I don’t remember any president — and certainly not the immediately preceding one — taking responsibility — as an American, in a foreign country, addressing that country’s legislative body — for the dark chapters in our national history, and then saying, in effect, “We faced our past. We called it by its true name. We went through the painful process of acknowledging, honestly, the wrongs in our past. And if we can do it, you can do it, too.”

I am telling you, I am so impressed with Barack Obama. Yes, unquestionably, he has disappointed me in some areas, but overall he is, in my opinion, a visionary and an original, unique voice in our political history. He’s a leader — a real leader. I think we’re on the edge of a turning point that, if we don’t lose heart, could take us to a much better place.

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