Is the American public willing to accept suspended freedoms, if not for everyone, then for a select few disfavored groups, such as Muslims and Arab-Americans? Much press reporting has said yes, but a survey conducted directly after the September 11 attacks says no.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the slogan “United We Stand” materialized virtually overnight on car bumpers, storefronts and lapels across the US. This slogan brings to mind multiple images: one is the prosaic barnyard scene of two baby chicks struggling together to pull up a worm — only to have the worm split in two, landing the chicks on their behinds under the caption, “Divided We Fall.” Another is the image of esprit de corps, presenting to the world a united front. Still a third image recalls Alexander Hamilton’s argument in Federalist No. 70 that “unity,” secrecy and dispatch in the hands of a strong executive are necessary to protect the nation against foreign attacks.

But all of these images give the erroneous impression that oneness can be constructed unilaterally. Each image contains at least the implicit message that dissent, or difference, must be sacrificed on the altar of national security. Each favors the suspension of the individual’s liberties in the interest of victory over the unknown, resulting in the rapid codification of censorship and discrimination in the nation’s anti-terrorism and immigration laws. Most significantly, the slogan aims at giving a unitary and unifying expression to what in reality remains a profoundly diverse and multifaceted society.

The slogan “United We Stand” takes on a particular resonance when we think of it in terms of the growing Muslim community in the US — are they a part of, or apart from, the unity to which the bumper sticker refers? For many Americans, the growth of these Muslim minority populations in “the West,” and in the US in particular, has generated increasing concern about their settlement in what has been considered the heart of Western civilization and the world’s preeminent superpower. In the minds of many American policymakers and opinion shapers, the coming of age of Muslim American communities represents a grave security threat. For some, it represents a challenge to the supposed racial and cultural (Judeo-Christian) unity of Western civilization.

Muslims as “Others”

Recent events have drawn attention to the presence of Muslims in the US and present a quandary for the American public. One the one hand the current Bush administration conducts, and the public overwhelmingly supports, a global war on terror aimed at eradicating the elusive (terrorist) brown-skinned enemy. At the same time it remains fundamental in a democratic state that Muslim persons “at home” be treated fairly, in accordance with the rule of law. That Islam is not just a religion of people “over there,” but the religion of a growing number of Americans, calls on policy and opinion-makers to be sensitive to civil liberties concerns as the mobilization to the “war on terror” intensifies. This has resulted in the cultivation of two different standards of treatment: vilification of the “others” (read Muslims) abroad and normalization of the “others” (read Muslims) in our midst. This leads many Muslims to wonder whether Western concepts of pluralism and liberalism will be liberal enough to accommodate Islamic input into the shaping of the future of American (or any Western) society. Or will Muslims remain the alien “other” in perpetuity?

In the post-civil rights era, it seems that the problem of racism has been combined with, and amplified by, the problem of “cultural fundamentalism” — the belief that some (nonwhite) cultures do not belong in the West. Anthropologist Aihwa Ong aptly points out that “there has been a distinct shift in dominant Western European exclusionary practices whereby cultural rather than racial difference is used to justify calls for banning immigrants.” [1] In Britain, newer discourses of exclusion in politics focus on the “distinctive culture” of blacks without discarding racism.

In the US, the brown-skinned immigrant (this time Middle Eastern or South Asian), whose provenance lies outside the imagined borders of Western civilization, is described as a threat to democracy. Yet the alienation of Muslim subjects occurs not just in the context of racial politics within the nation-state. The spread of Islam in the world, depicted as a global “pestilence,” has challenged Americans to reflect not only on their perceptions of liberalism, democracy and tolerance. Americans are also challenged to accommodate a religion that is identified by some international relations thinkers as the next great enemy of the West.

Surveying Competing Values

In October and November 2001, I designed and conducted a study of public support for the civil liberties that are vulnerable to the post-September 11 campaign to increase national security in the face of terrorist threats. The study compares the willingness of the American public to limit civil liberties of Americans in general with the public’s willingness to limit the same liberties for Muslim and Arab-Americans. To measure support for civil liberties the survey used a series of five questions designed to measure support or opposition for a series of measures from the USA PATRIOT Act: increased wiretapping, searches without use of a search warrant, use of internment camps for suspects, indefinite detention of suspects without an evidentiary hearing and ethnic profiling. Respondents were given four options, ranging from strongly agree with the measure to strongly disagree. Half of all respondents rated these measures as applied to Americans in general, while half rated the measures as applied to Muslim or Arab-Americans specifically.

Since September 11, concerns about civil liberties and the security measures taken in the war on terror have had an uneasy coexistence. While the Bush administration uses the metaphor of “war” to describe its plan to prosecute terrorism at home and abroad, and has argued that the US is facing an extraordinary threat that requires extraordinary measures, it remains to be seen whether the public is in sync with plans to increase homeland security at the cost of certain liberties. [2] Hence I designed the survey to explore not whether Americans are committed to civil liberties guarantees in the abstract, but rather whether Americans remain committed to these guarantees when, because of the threat of terrorism, the values of security compete with the values of freedom.

When poll research is focused on the exercise of “rights” by a particular disfavored object, respondents may be overwhelmed by affective attitudes toward that object. During these times of heightened fears about terrorism, any variance in public support for civil liberties for Americans in general and support for the liberties of Muslims and Arab-Americans may be explained by negative group affect. Media frames may also cast certain individuals and groups in a negative light. Communications scholars have claimed that “by framing social and political issues in specific ways, news organizations declare the underlying causes and likely consequences of a problem and establish criteria for evaluating potential remedies for the problem.” [3] Not only news media framing but also entertainment media (for example, the episode of the prime-time series “West Wing” which dealt with terrorism emanating from an Arab source) and cues from public figures such as politicians can have important consequences for how public opinion respondents make attributions about the causes of, and solutions to, problems of terrorism. Attaching the label of “national security” or “homeland security” to a policy of antiterrorism stresses the rationale for limiting the fundamental civil liberties at stake. Is the American public willing to accept suspended freedoms, if not for everyone, then for a select few disfavored groups, such as Muslims and Arab-Americans?

The survey operated on the twin hypotheses that support for civil liberties is stronger when applied to all Americans than when applied to Arab or Muslim Americans and that a relationship exists between favorable support for civil liberties of Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans and direct experience with those two groups.


By and large, the results undercut the first hypothesis. As is clear from the table above, the only statistically significant difference between American attitudes toward USA PATRIOT Act measures as applied to Muslims and all Americans is for increased wiretapping. Americans are slightly more likely to favor increased wiretapping if applied to Arab or Muslim American suspects than when applied to Americans as a whole. The overall 15-point scale, which compounds the information in all questions, actually yields significantly more favorable attitudes toward protecting the civil liberties of Arab or Muslim Americans as compared to all Americans. Mean scores on this 15-point scale measuring opposition to these measures are 7.7 for “Americans” in general and 8.2 for Arab and Muslim Americans. These differences suggest that Americans are at least slightly less likely to admit to wanting to infringe on the civil liberties of Arab and Muslim Americans as a targeted group. As Table 1 indicates, in October and November 2001, there was minimal variance in Americans’ attitudes regarding civil liberties limits imposed by the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. In fact, the data show that respondents either did not regard the civil liberties of Arab and Muslim Americans any differently than they did the civil liberties of Americans in general, or were perhaps slightly more inclined to oppose civil liberties restrictions when applied to the specific groups of Arab and Muslim Americans.

Contact with immigrants is based on a series of ten questions. One question asks whether the respondent has any close friends who are recent immigrants, and one uses a four-point scale to measure the respondents’ perceptions of the number of immigrants who have moved into their vicinity in recent years. Eight other questions measure contact with immigrants in specific locations: a church or other place of worship, their child’s school, the workplace, local service establishments, restaurants or other entertainment venues, professional offices and as domestic help. For each of these questions, half of all respondents were asked about immigrants, while half were asked about “Arab or Muslim immigrants.”

Data from the survey supports the hypothesis that familiarity with Arab and Muslim immigrants leads to favorable support for protecting the civil liberties of these persons. As contact increases, so does support for civil liberties protections. Interestingly, familiarity with immigrants in general is not related to general civil liberties support. The results also show that support for civil liberties is not higher among immigrants. Mean support among those who have not immigrated is 7.97, compared to 7.48 among immigrants. These results are not statistically significant; however, they show that immigrants and non-immigrants do not vary in their support.


While public figures continue to devise means of identifying potential terrorists among particular groups, sometimes targeting a segment of the population that shares ethnic characteristics, the general public seems to be more cautious about operating on the basis of stereotypes. Only weeks after the September 11 attacks, the public expressed a willingness to defend the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab-American groups. However, Americans are more lenient about allowing law enforcement to target individuals’ communications on the basis of the suspects’ religious and/ or ethnic identification.

Whether these results are reliable depends in part on what is called the “social desirability” effect: persons who are asked to answer a questionnaire over the telephone may feel that although the survey is anonymous there is a certain social pressure to give “desirable” or “politically correct” responses. These responses may not reflect accurately what the respondent truly feels — no one likes to think of herself as a bigot. But it is worth noting that the survey’s eleventh question asked respondents whether they thought that immigration of Muslims to the US ought to be reduced or stopped altogether. Nearly 50 percent felt that Muslim immigration to the US should be reduced or stopped. It seems that public attitudes favor curtailing immigration of a certain type, but once here, these objectionable immigrants are allowed the protection of the laws.


 [1] Aihwa Ong, “Cultural Citizenship as Subject-Making: Immigrants Negotiate Racial and Cultural Boundaries in the United States,” Current Anthropology 37/5 (December 1996), p. 738.

 [2] Critics have attacked the administration’s idea of military tribunals to prosecute terrorism suspects, a step that would bypass the criminal justice system, which has convicted terrorists in the past while protecting civil liberties. Attorney General John Ashcroft has defended such measures by saying that “it’s important to understand we are at war now.” Washington Post, November 15, 2001.

 [3] Thomas E. Nelson, Rosalee A. Clawson, and Zoe M. Oxley, “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance,” American Political Science Review 91 (September 1997), pp. 567-568.


How to cite this article:

Kathleen Moore "A Part of US or Apart from US?," Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).

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