Obama Not Muslim, Islam Not Bad

Yesterday's survey results suggest coverage of Islam could be better

The Pew Research Center Survey Report showing more Americans than ever believe President Obama is a Muslim is disheartening, outraging, and confounding all at the same time. That headlines and banners yesterday read “Number of Americans Who Believe Obama is A Muslim Nearly Doubles” feels surreal—where do people get this information from?—and, for an idealist progressive like myself, stuck in time—why does it matter if he’s a Muslim, an atheist, or a Catholic? This is The 21st Century, gosh darn it.

Despite wishing we were at a point where Obama’s religion did not matter, I’m not naïve enough to actually believe we’re there. This week, with the debate over Park51 raging, the president’s role in that debate drawing praise and criticism, and Time magazine asking, “Is America Islamophobic?”, religion has come sharply into focus—Islam more sharply than any other faith.

Coverage of the survey numbers has been shrewd and sometimes exemplary, noting the trends, pondering how they came to be, and always pushing back against the false narrative they show people are consuming. The Times homes in on the president and his White House’s failure to define him, and offers this from a frazzled administration:

The White House says Mr. Obama prays daily, sometimes in person or over the telephone with a small circle of Christian pastors. One of them, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was also a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, telephoned a reporter on Wednesday, at the White House’s behest. He said he was surprised that the number of Americans who say Mr. Obama is Muslim is growing.

“I must say,” Mr. Caldwell said, “never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.”

Chris Cillizza on The Fix looks at how Pew’s findings might play for Obama electorally.

Perhaps more important from an electoral perspective, however, is the growing number of people who don’t know what religion the President identifies with. While most Americans don’t tend to vote based on religious faith — although being either a Muslim or a Mormon can, among certain demographic groups, complicate a politician’s electoral calculus — they do like to believe that their president is a man of faith.

Religion humanizes a president for many people, allows them to identify on a very basic level with the most powerful man in the world. For a president whose detractors have scored political points by painting him as aloof and uncaring, religion could be a bridge by which he connects to the average person. The Pew poll suggests work still remains to be done in building that connection.

But for me, some of the most informed and informing analysis comes from Time senior editor Amy Sullivan, who writes formidably about religion and politics. She first asks if it matters that people don’t know what religion the president practices (it shouldn’t), before arguing that it does—uncertainty creates the vacuum into which false information is poured.

Yet it does matter, because a president—especially a Democratic president—cannot afford to let his enemies define his character and his beliefs. John Kerry made this point in a fascinating post-campaign speech at Pepperdine University in 2006 that he intended partly as a caution to his Democratic colleagues:

“There will always be those bent on corrupting our political discourse, particularly where religion is involved. But I learned how important it is to make certain people have a deeper understanding of the values that shape me and the faith that sustains me. Despite this New Englanders’ past reticence of talking publicly about my faith, I learned that if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again — and neither should you, because no matter your party, your ideology, or your faith, we are all done a disservice when the debate is reduced to ugly and untrue caricatures.”

Sullivan then writes:

…Pew results suggest that nearly two years after Americans elected Obama, they know less about him than they did when he was a presidential candidate still making his way onto their radar. Forget the question of what that means for 2012—it’s already a problem for a leader who wants to connect with the country.

The Pew report is bad for Obama, worse for the media, revealing of the survey takers, and disheartening for those reading the results. But there is something even ickier about this story than the fact that the public is increasingly misinformed. That is the implication that the being Muslim is implicitly bad.

As many analyses of the Pew data have pointed out, there is a rather direct correlation between those who disapprove of the President and those who believe he is Muslim. From the Times:

“This is an expression of the people who are opposed to Obama having an increasingly negative view of him,” said Andrew Kohut, the Pew center’s director.

The Post posits disapproval as a potential reason for the higher percentage of those believing the president is Muslim.

…the shifting attitudes about the president’s religious beliefs could also be the result of a public growing less enamored of him and increasingly attracted to labels they perceive as negative. In the Pew poll, 41 percent disapprove of Obama’s job performance, compared with 26 percent disapproval in its March 209 poll.

According to the survey, thirty percent of those who disapproved of Obama’s job performance also believed he is a Muslim, significantly higher than the overall average. Political scientist and media critic Brendan Nyhan wrote yesterday, after reviewing the Post’s analysis:

…as Republicans and independents view Obama more unfavorably, they’re likely to be more receptive to negative information about him, including false claims about his religion.

Drawing conclusions from different survey answers can be risky, but it’s probably not too much of a stretch to draw connections here between answers on job approval and the president’s beliefs; Obama and his faith are the central focus of the survey. And the connection appears to be this: the more people dislike Obama, the more likely they are to believe—or at least tell surveyors they believe—he is a Muslim. Islam is either something negative, to be disapproved of, or it’s a suitable label for something of which you disapprove. Either way, Islam=bad.

Cut to the saga of Park51, entangled as it is in the kinds of misinformation, conflation, rumor, heat, anger, and at times rank stupidity that help form and perpetuate that equation. If there is a media failure implied in Pew’s survey, it is not that we didn’t adequately push back against the Obama-is-Muslim meme. We can’t stick cameras outside of the president’s Camp David chapel or get his prayers on the record before he hits the sack. And papers and other outlets are always quick to shoot down the idea when it’s brought up. Including today.

Our failure is that we have sometimes not reported accurately, rigorously, fairly, and with adequate nuance and pushback, on issues that involve Islam. We have allowed the Islam-as-bad idea to fester unchallenged and to grow. And we are now at a point where legitimate connections can be drawn between a president’s disapproval and the inaccurate belief that he is a Muslim.

The “Ground Zero Mosque” debate is an example of where we have failed and are failing in this regard. It is only in the last week or so that a slew of articles are surfacing with desires on correcting the record about simple details like the actual location and nature of the development. The Associated Press has published a fact-check report to counter rumors and assertions about the imam behind Park51. Yesterday, the AP released a much-retweeted memo to its staff titled, “AP Standards Center issues staff advisory on covering New York City mosque.” It advises reporters not to use the phrase, “mosque at Ground zero,” correctly noting that it is a community center and mosque and is not at “Ground Zero” at all.

When criticisms have come couched in extravagant and misleading rhetoric, most papers have offered little pushback outside of the editorial pages. In a report on Republican criticism of the Park51 development, the Times ran Newt Gingrich’s now infamous statement that “building the mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks ‘would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.’” It would not have been ideological editorializing to challenge that assertion, adding, as many have pointed out, that the analogy is extreme and inaccurate. Instead, it was left to stand.

We can’t leave the inflammatory and misleading to stand. We must be as vigilant about correcting the record on all matters of Islam as we have been on the president’s faith. More so. The stakes for him are political; the stakes for Muslim Americans are far greater. From this week’s Time cover story:

…to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.