When President Donald Trump announced his “Muslim ban” – a law that would keep citizens from six predominately Muslim states from entering the US – around this time last year, the country witnessed a new wave of Islamophobia. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that 2017 was one of the worst years for Muslims in America, with attacks on community members soared by 44 percent from the year before.
Since then, the so-called Muslim ban has morphed into several versions, with many states' supreme courts weighing in on the legality of Trump's executive order, which for now targets Iran, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela.
But this week, a study published in Political Behavior, a quarterly academic journal, found that Trump's anti-Islamic sentiment has backfired in some ways.
A team of political scientists from the University of Delaware, Michigan State University and University of California in Riverside found a silver lining to a survey they conducted. Trump's anti-Muslim actions, which became a cornerstone of his election campaign and later his immigration policy, have changed national perceptions of the controversial law.
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Many who had initially supported or expressed indifference to the new policy now have come out against it, the study found. The conversation generated in its aftermath, coupled with the media backlash mostly from liberal outlets portraying the ban as inconsistent with American values, led to this shift in public opinion, the team found.
In early 2017, the political science professors polled some 400 people nationwide right before Trump announced the ban, and then about a week after. More than 30 percent of respondents expressed more negative views of the ban a week after the executive order was signed than they did in the days leading up to it.
The authors found that the media played a role in this shift in views, in addition to the debate it generated across the US.
“Right after the executive order was announced there was a media backlash, protests sprung [up] in major cities and airports. Challenges to the ban were numerous,” said Kassra Oskooii, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Delaware.
“Media personalities were saying this was un-American, that it goes against the country's notions of freedom,” Oskooii said. “People saw that there's an incompatibility with being American and singling out a minority group, and we think this caused some participants to reevaluate their opinions.”
The authors acknowledge that such “rapid and significant” public opinion changes are rare, making their findings all the more remarkable. The study also found that support for the ban shifted dramatically particularly among those with strong American identities.
“I am opposed to banning refugees from our country and seeing the protests and hearing the stories following this un-American travel ban has only strengthened my feelings against this administration,” said a survey respondent who did not want to be identified.
People saw that there's an incompatibility with being American and singling out a minority group
– Kassra Oskooii, University of Delaware
Other pollsters who have surveyed Americans for attitudes on Islam have reached similar conclusions. Shibley Telhami, director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, found that Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims does not have wide support among the American public.
“Surprisingly overall attitudes towards Islam and Muslims in America have actually improved even with all the anti-Islamic rhetoric and with the Trump factor,” he noted. “In fact it's because of the Trump factor that all the substantial improvement came as a reaction… [which, in turn,] moved the entire population.”
These findings come at a time when Muslims are projected to become the second-largest religious group in the United States by 2040, surpassing Jews, according to a report by the Pew Research Center published last week.
In 2017, there were 3.45 million Muslims in the US – making about 1.1 percent of the total US population, Pew found, attributing the group's predicted growth to immigration and high fertility rates. Currently, 75 percent of Muslims in the US are immigrants or second-generation Americans, according to the data.
As the Muslim population – estimated to more than double to 8.1 million in 2050 – continues to grow, questions of how members of other communities perceive and interact with them have become more pressing.
The political scientists behind the study published in Political Behavior aim to find this out, which is why they have gone back to the same respondents to establish whether the change in public perception they noted earlier was temporary.
“We're trying to survey the same participants to see if their opinion remained stable,” Oskooii said.
“Did they get caught up in the moment seeing images of elderly people being held at the airport or have they come out even more against the ban?”