Even though two thirds of Americans (63%) admit that they have little or no knowledge about Islam, according to a recent Gallup poll, almost half of Americans acknowledge some level of prejudice against Islam (53%) and Muslims (43%). Furthermore, “personal affiliation with a Muslim may help to soften extreme prejudice, but is not enough to eliminate it.”
Comparing what Americans believe Muslims think to what Muslims actually think, the study finds a big gap between the two. For example, only 16% of Americans agree that “most Muslims around the world believe that women and men should have equal rights,” while in reality, majorities of people in more than 35 Muslim countries surveyed by Gallup support gender equality. The support is above 73% even in conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and Egypt.
“Prejudice is the child of ignorance,” said William Hazlitt, an English writer and philosopher. Checking our perception against reality and adjusting our opinion based on facts are critical to overcoming prejudice. But that’s more easily said than done because we human beings are not always rational and diligent. Social psychologists have long discovered that people are “cognitive misers” when it comes to decision-making. When an issue is too complicated or trivial to them, people often skip studying the issue but adopt the opinion of someone they trust such as experts or friends. So prejudice can breed prejudice. Even when people do spend time studying an issue, psychologists say, their prior opinion can still hamper a reality check because of “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek information that supports a prior opinion.
Most Americans get information about Muslims from mass media, especially television. Among the three major cable news networks, CNN has more objective and comprehensive coverage of the Muslim world than Fox News and MSNBC, which deliberately cover the topic from conservative and liberal points of view respectively. With confirmative bias at work, American audiences have flocked to Fox News and MSNBC, resulting in a 30% audience loss for CNN last year alone.
Given the tremendous obstacles in overcoming prejudice, will Americans shed their bias against Muslims? I’m hopeful, for two reasons. First, this country has battled prejudice successfully in the past — the women’s suffrage movement, legislation condemning Japanese-American internment, the civil rights movement, etc. Second, the vast majority of American people can be counted on to be fair-minded. As Americans become more aware of the blind spots in decision making as well as more knowledgeable about Muslims, I believe, they will develop more informed and unbiased view towards Islam.
What do you think? What other strategies can help overcome prejudice? We welcome your comments.