The surprising increase in Muslim popularity

John Howard’s critics believed that he at least pandered to, if not stirred up, anti-Muslim sentiment. According to Malcolm Fraser:

for a variety of reasons, but not least because the Government has sought to set Muslims aside, discrimination and defamation against Muslims has been rising dramatically. (italics added)

What we’ve lacked in assessing these claims is comparable survey data over time that lets us track changing views towards Muslims. Now that has changed. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2007 has partially unlocked the results of their social distance question on Muslims, enabling a comparision with the same question asked in the Issues in Multicultural Australia Survey 1988.

The results are not what I expected. Especially since 2001, Islam has suffered one PR disaster after another. Yet over the nearly 20 years since 1988, Muslims have improved their position in the social distance survey.

In 1988, 24% of the Australian population would either welcome a Muslim into their family or as a close friend. By 2007, that was up to 38.5%. In 1988, 32% of the Australian population wanted either to keep Muslims out of the country or to have them as visitors only. That had dropped to 24.5% by 2007.

Overall, Muslims are the least popular group – the Jehovah’s Witness will find fewer people who want them in their house (31%) but also fewer who want to keep them out of the country (16%) – but to improve their position despite all that has happened is a good result.

While politicians can raise the salience of ethnic or religious differences, I’m sceptical of the view that they shape attitudes to ethnic or religious minorities. People don’t take advice from politicians on matters that they can work out for themselves. So I don’t think Howard influenced attitudes to Muslims either way, and this evidence is consistent with that view though not proof of it.

The more interesting issue is why the more positive attitudes? Perhaps on the contact hypothesis the significant Muslim migration to Australia since 1988 has meant more people know Muslims and conclude that they aren’t that bad after all. Perhaps prejudice (or at least open prejudice) has become less acceptable since 1988. Perhaps both. Either way, concerns about rising anti-Muslim prejudice seem misplaced.

5 thoughts on “The surprising increase in Muslim popularity

  1. “for a variety of reasons, but not least because the Government has sought to set Muslims aside, discrimination and defamation against Muslims has been rising dramatically. (italics added)”

    Defamation against Muslims? I thought what had happened was people were beginning to examine more closely some of the more sinister teachings and beliefs displayed by some Muslims (in relation to Jews, women’s rights, homos8xuals etc). This kind of discourse is necessary in a liberal democracy.


  2. I would be interested to see how this compared with changes in attitudes towards other minority groups. In particular I think that comparing attitudes towards Muslims and and non-Muslim Asians would be a good comparison, since both groups have increases in immigration over a similar period.

    My guess is that positive attitudes towards non-Muslim Asians would have increased significantly more.


  3. This is an interesting and somewhat welcome finding. On the face of it, your suggestion that the contact hypothesis might explain this development is a reasonable assumption.

    There is no doubt that there is a greater number of public attacks (verbal ones at least) on Islam and on Muslims in Australia. Regardless of whether John Howard played any role in pandering to or encouraging this, the growth of shock jock and tabloid style media, plus the nature of the internet and its growing use across all levels of society would certainly have played a part. However, this has also meant a growing number of people finding the facts and putting alternatives point of views to those want to vilify.

    That’s perhaps not quite the same as the contact hypothesis (at least as I understand it) although it may be occuring in part as a consequence of it. The more contact people have with Australian Muslims the more they understand about the reality of their beliefs and the more confident they are in countering some of the vitriolic distortions.

    However, while the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice may be decreasing, I wonder if the strength of that prejudice is increasing, even if it is amongst a shrinking number of people. Does the survey try to measure intensity of discomfort or comfort with various groups in some way, or just whether it exists?


  4. Andrew B – The social distance surveys are intended to get beyond binary like/dislike questions, with the options being: welcome as family member, welcome as close friend, have as next door neighbour, welcome as work mates, allow as Australian citizen, have as visitor only, and keep out of Australia altogether. I have taken the last two as the strongest dislike, but there is no way of knowing whether these feelings are more intense than before. I haven’t seen any study of the people who are involved in more specific anti-Muslim activity, but given that the most common location for it is sporting or other public events I suspect that this is just an aspect of the anti-social behaviour observed at these places, and reflects convenient targets rather than intense feeling or discomfort.


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