Teaching Tool: U.S. Views of Muslims and Islam (Video)

On, March 26, 2016, Professor Shibley Telhami talked with C-SPAN and guest callers about U.S. perceptions of those who practice Islam based on his recent polling and in light of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium, earlier that same week. He also looks at statements made by Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. A video clip was shown of Senator Cruz on CBS News March 23, 2016. Professor Telhami teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Development and Peace. Extracts of this video (43 minutes), shared in full below, could be used to frame classroom debate about the diversity of American demographics and differences in American public opinion. Specific discussion prompts are provided at the end of this summary.

Telhami begins by discussing how Muslims are better integrated into American society than their European counterparts. As a result, there are distinct sets of realities and challenges in each place. In the U.S., we see less of the “clash of civilizations” taking place in various European countries, but there is still a perception of Muslims and Islam in America as one-dimensional. Public opinion in the U.S. is very much driven by the type of narrative our media builds about Islam as monolithic, but even more so, by an element of fear and ignorance among the public. Telhami argues that some people believe that Islam is simply incompatible with American values, but a majority of Americans (57%) are tolerant of other faiths.

Telhami urges the viewer not to distill a person down to his or her religion alone; there are many other values and interests (class, education, employment, and so on) that drive behavior. The issue, he claims, is not so much where religion comes from, but how it is being practiced, and why. He refers to poll results that indicate that greater interaction with Muslims (none, know some but not well, or know some very well) leads to a more multi-dimensional view of Islam and its followers. Telhami recommends looking back at the post-9/11 American when opinions about Muslims were actually slow to shift. In addition, learning more about the development and growth of ISIS in the Middle East will help Americans better understand contemporary dynamics; attributing the ongoing turmoil to (mis)actions of the current president, for example, is simplistic and inadequate.

Teachers: View the complete recording to see what points would resonate most with your students. Here are some prompt questions to keep in mind.

  1. Why does the speaker differentiate between Muslims in the United States and in Europe? How do these different environments shape behavior and integration into society?
  2. Why is religion used to define people and their values?
  3. What other factors influence and shape identity that should be considered?
  4. How does your community engage with difference? What kinds of activities do you think might help overcome misunderstanding between groups where you live?
  5. How does the media shape people’s perceptions about Muslims and other ethnic or religious minorities?

For another recent take on perceptions of Muslims in the United States, see Guest Article: Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Is Out of Step with Reality in the United States.

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