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Congress and candidates, take note: Anti-Muslim sentiments are unpopular

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Today marks a new stage in the history of the so-called “Muslim ban” that went from a campaign promise to three attempts by President Trump, to a 5-4 decision at the Supreme Court. The fight over the travel policy heads to Congress, as the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship hold the first-ever hearing on the issue. 

The ban on entering the United States by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries has caused no end of personal tragedies — families torn apart, medical care denied, and those kept abroad from opportunities for education, work and more. Thousands of spouses and fiances have been kept out of the country by the ban, which includes Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.  

Some of the most heart-wrenching tales have been of mothers and fathers kept apart from their children, such as the case of Shaima Swileh, a Yemeni mother who fought for two months to come to the United States to see her dying son, Abdullah, one last time before he succumbed to a degenerative brain disease. 

Survey data show us that most Americans don’t know a Muslim, and even fewer know a citizen of one of these banned countries. But even so, is support for banning Muslims — as articulated by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for president — a politically savvy position to take for elected officials today, as we head into the 2020 campaign season?   

As Congress takes this initial step to provide oversight on the travel ban, it’s a good time to examine the political dynamics of the issue. After all, President Trump did win an election campaigning on a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country.” 

The answer is no, it’s not politically savvy. An elected official’s support for this policy scores them few points with most voters, our organization has found. And, in fact, the sentiment that fuels such support is bad for both our nation’s security and freedom. 

At the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), where I serve as director of research, we conduct an annual nationally representative survey of faith and non-faith groups that showcases current issues impacting Americans who are Muslim. The American Muslim Poll includes data on issues such as the travel ban, presidential approval ratings, optimism about the direction of our country and more.  

Our 2019 poll showed that majorities in all major faith and non-faith groups say support for the Muslim ban would either decrease their support or make no difference in their support for a candidate for office. Our data show there’s just not much interest in political candidates endorsing the ban — including among President Trump’s strongest faith-group base, white evangelicals, of whom fewer than half  (44 percent) say that support for the ban would increase their support for a candidate. 

In fact, majorities in almost every faith and non-faith group we measured oppose the ban personally, with 66 percent of the general public opposing it in our 2018 study. White evangelicals were the only group where the majority expressed some level of support for the ban that year, with just 34 percent opposing it.  

We weren’t surprised when we found low support for the ban, because our data also show that most Americans (86 percent) want to live in a country where no one is targeted for their religious identity. Moreover, the majority (66 percent) think negative rhetoric about Muslims is harmful for America. 

That’s a good thing for the health of our democracy, because our research has found that anti-Muslim sentiment is empirically linked to greater support for authoritarian attitudes and discriminatory policies, as well as greater support for military targeting of civilians and individual violence against civilians. Those who endorse anti-Muslim stereotypes were more likely to support suspending checks and balances and limiting freedom of the press in the wake of a terrorist attack.  

Ironically, those who hold Islamophobic views, while claiming Muslims are prone to violence,  also were more likely to say targeting civilians with lethal force is “sometimes justified,” both by the military and even by non-state actors. Bigotry is a danger, not only to its target group but to the freedom and safety of our entire nation. 

After learning what Islamophobia is tied to, you may be relieved to know that our data show that only about 15 percent of Americans harbor anti-Muslim sentiments. Maybe that number surprises you — President Trump, after all, rode from nomination to election on a tide of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments. But it’s just not what most Americans want. 

As Congress begins the process of upholding its constitutional duty to provide oversight of the executive branch, and as the 2020 presidential race heats up, it’s important to be clear about what our survey data reveal: Politicians do themselves, and our nation, little good if they were to use this occasion to drum up more fear of Muslims. 

Dalia Mogahed is director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington and the CEO of Mogahed Consulting. Previously the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, she served on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama. She is co-author of “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” Follow her on Twitter @DMogahed.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign American Muslims Donald Trump Islamophobia muslim travel ban

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