New polls show negative perception of Islam

Tri-City area Muslims say outreach must continue
By Jonathan Jones, STAFF WRITER

FREMONT  The first time Glenn Koehler can remember
learning about Muslims and the Islamic faith was in
September 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist group
called Black September murdered 11 Israeli hostages
during the Olympics in Munich, Germany.

"Then the second was Sept. 11," Koehler said. "So
there's really been no pleasant introductions."

Koehler is a 58-year-old Fremont engineer. He
describes himself as a Lutheran, politically
conservative and a registered Republican who receives
much of his news from the Drudge Report, Michael
Savage and the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy
group for Christian rights. He does not have Muslim
friends, and he says he agrees with the statements
that Muslims teach their children to hate unbelievers,
Muslims value life less than other people and Islam
teaches violence and hatred.

Koehler is not alone. Two polls released last week
indicate almost half of Americans have a negative
perception of Islam, and one in four of those surveyed
have extreme anti-Muslim views.

An independent survey by the Council on
American-Islamic Relations shows 23 to 27 percent of
all Americans believe Muslims value life less than
other people and that Islam teaches violence and
hatred. The survey also showed only

6 percent of Americans have a positive first
impression of Islam and Muslims.

A similar poll released by the Washington Post and ABC
News found that one in four Americans "admitted to
harboring prejudice toward Muslims," and 46 percent
had a negative view of Islam, a 7 percent jump since
the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,

When asked to respond to the open-ended question,
"When you hear the word 'Muslim,' what is the first
thought that comes to your mind?" Koehler said:
"Religion of death."

Inge Belle, a Fremont executive assistant for a
high-tech firm who described herself as a politically
independent Catholic, was not much more positive in
her response.

"Nothing really positive," said Belle, who also said
she has no Muslim friends. "I get a bad, bad vibe. I
mean, I have my own experiences here living in
Fremont. It's like living in the Middle East."

Perhaps it is not surprising then that when Mohamad
Rajabally, a Fremont dentist and president of the
Islamic Society of the East Bay, was asked what his
first thought is when he hears the world "Muslim," he
responded: "The most misunderstood religion in the

Rajabally, who has helped run Islamic outreach by
holding open houses at the mosque and holding library
events to discuss the legacy of the Muslim Prophet
Muhammad, said he is not surprised by the views of 41
percent of Americans who agreed with the statement
that the American-Muslim community is cooperating in
the fight against terrorism.

Nor was he surprised by statements such as those of
Koehler, who said he was unaware of any statements by
Muslim leaders condemning terrorism despite the
efforts of national Islamic organizations.

"You need to have positive exposure to Islam, but that
doesn't necessarily sell," Rajabally said. "What sells
is the bombings, and people take that to represent 1.2
billion people. ISNA (the Islamic Society of North
America), CAIR and other Islamic groups speak out,
(but) they're not being heard."

However, he noted that when Muslims have held open
houses or outreach efforts here, as they did earlier
this month in the weeks after the controversy about
Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, they
have been positively received.

"Are we preaching to the choir?" Rajabally said.
"Sometimes. ... But we believe if you reach just one
(person who is learning about Islam for) the first
time, then it's worth it."

Maha Al-Ghoul, a Fremont mother who is Muslim, agreed.

"If we can reach 30 percent of the people who believe
Islam is terrorism, we feel they can affect another 30
percent," Al-Ghoul said.

Al-Ghoul said she has worked hard to teach her
children to treat all people with respect regardless
of their faith.

"It's really about living your life with respect for
all people," Al-Ghoul said. "If a person needs help,
you help them. You have to teach your children to
judge people by what's in their heart. I teach my
children to judge people based on who they are,
regardless of their religion."

Farid Senzai, director of research with the Institute
of Social Policy and Understanding and a Union City
resident, cautioned that opinions of Americans in
polls can "change like the wind."

However, Senzai said he is alarmed by a string of
polls since 2002 that continue to show negative
tendencies toward Islam.

"In September and October of 2001, soon after the
attacks, what I thought was very helpful was people
within the administration saying that al-Qaida does
not represent Islam, that this is not a clash of
civilizations," Sen-

zai said. "But beginning midway through 2002, you
heard less and less of those statements."

Senzai, who is Muslim, noted that Islamic
organizations have come a long way in terms of
building alliances with non-Muslim organizations and
sharing more about their beliefs.

For more on the CAIR poll, visit


Staff writer Jonathan Jones covers ethnic, religious
and cultural issues. He can be reached at (510)
353-7005 or 


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