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Americans Are More Afraid of Muslims Now that Bin Laden Is Dead

Some optimists thought Osama's death would help combat Islamophobia. But a new survey reveals it's only made it worse.

When Osama bin Laden was pronounced dead in early May, the entire country erupted into one big frat party celebrating the demise of the United States' number one enemy. Progressive publications reminded everyone that the death of a man was no reason to celebrate, while others pointed out this may bring a sense of peace to 9/11's victims. One line in President Obama's nine-minute speech sought to distance the al Qaeda leader from the rest of the Islamic world: "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." Optimists hoped that Bin Laden's death was not just the culmination of a decade-long witch hunt, but also the end of some people's irrational prejudice toward Muslims.

It turns out that was wishful thinking. A new survey conducted by several scholars found that Americans' fear and distrust of Muslims has significantly climbed. In the weeks before Bin Laden’s death, nearly half of respondents described Muslim Americans as “trustworthy” and “peaceful.” After bin Laden's death, only one-third of Americans agreed with those positive descriptors. Americans were also less likely to oppose limitations on Muslim Americans' civil liberties and more likely to agree that Muslims living in the United States “increased the likelihood of a terrorist attack.” And one in three people agreed that “Muslims are mostly responsible for creating the religious tension that exists in the United States today,” up from a bad enough ratio of one in five.

If you think these people are just conservatives becoming right-wing zealots, think again. The survey found that most of the changes in opinion occurred among political liberals and moderates, whose views shifted to become more like those of conservatives.

The authors of the survey surmised that the increased media coverage of Bin Laden's death reminded people of 9/11 and dredged up old fears. But it's not just about a traumatic memory of one particular event. Racial and religious profiling has been integral to the function of the Department of Homeland Security. One in five people think Obama is a Muslim. Can you blame people for being scared? Bin Laden's death wouldn't have been such an affirming event if these ingrained policies and public attitudes weren't already in place. Some young Americans didn't even know who Bin Laden was at the time of his deathbut they sure picked up on our celebration of the event.

This survey is a sober reminder that Bin Laden's death hardly signals a win against Islamophobia. Rather, our collective response affirms just how much work we still need to do to fight it.

photo (cc) by Flickr user pamhule

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