One in five Americans believe Obama is a Muslim

New polling data shows that misconceptions about Obama’s faith have increased since he took office.

A growing number of Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows. The proportion of people accurately identifying him as a Christian has also declined since his inauguration as president.

The statistics get more worrying when you delve a little deeper: 67 per cent of those who identified Obama as Muslim disapprove of his job performance, compared to a 29 per cent disapproval rating from those who think he is Christian. As Obama's approval ratings continue to founder, it seems that perceptions of his political performance are increasingly being linked to assumptions about his religious identity. However, his policy decisions are considered to be less influenced by religion than those of his predecessor.

Nearly one in five Americans now identifies Obama as a Muslim, up from 11 per cent in March 2009. The increase in this perception is particularly marked among Republicans (up 14 per cent in the same period) and conservative Republicans (up 16 per cent).

Crucially, this poll was conducted in early August, before the president's intervention in the Ground Zero mosque controversy, which has provoked a wealth of anti-Muslim dissent from some quarters. The Pew findings are echoed in a recent Time magazine poll, in which 24 per cent of those surveyed said they believe Obama is a Muslim. Almost a third said that Muslims should be barred from running for president at all.

Internet conspiracies surround Obama's birth and religion have been around since well before the 2008 election, but the notion that Obama was a Muslim received more attention after a supporter of his Republican opponent John McCain repeatedly referred to him as "Barack Hussein Obama".

As to where this perception is coming from, Joshua DuBois, the White House adviser on faith, has blamed "misinformation campaigns" by political opponents. Yet the survey tells a slightly different story. About 60 per cent of those who identified Obama as Muslim said their source was the media, but one in ten cited "Obama's own words and behaviour".

Considering the man is very forthcoming about his faith, and that the news wires regularly run reports about him attending Baptist services, it is hard to pin this entirely on the media. Given the swell of anti-Muslim sentiment across the US as the Ground Zero controversy intensifies, the misconception isn't going to be corrected any time soon.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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