U.S. Public Opinion Toward Arabs and Islam: How “The Video Incident” May Affect U.S.-Muslim Relations

A provocatively offensive film and violent demonstrations protesting it have once again roiled the relationships between Americans, Arabs and Muslims. In both the United States and the volatile transition states of North Africa, popular reactions have been swift, severe and complicated by domestic politics. But beyond the partisan scorekeeping and the loudly raised voices, how have these recent events changed the way the American public views Arab and Muslim communities? Within the emerging democratic Arab states, how has the furor over the video altered the public debate regarding freedom of speech, civil liberties and other constitutional rights? Finally, how are these issues examined within the context of religious expression, pluralism and tolerance—values that are central to American identity?

On October 8, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings hosted a discussion on these questions and unveiled a new University of Maryland public opinion poll examining attitudes just days after violence erupted in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The poll, conducted by Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami, gauges American public attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims and toward U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Highlights of key findings from the poll include:

1. Most Americans believe that the the recent violent attacks against the American embassies in Libya and Egypt are the work of extremist minorities, not majorities, but most are dissatisfied with the reactions of the Libyan and Egyptian governments.

2. There is support for decreasing aid to Egypt, but not for stopping it.

3. A majority of Americans believes that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would result in a drastic oil price increase, Iranian attacks on American bases, and a worsened American strategic position in the Middle East.

4. Majorities of the American public support increasing sanctions on Syria and imposing an international no-fly zone, but overwhelmingly oppose bombing Syria, arming rebels, or sending troops to Syria.