While ING's goal of challenging stereotypes and preventing prejudice while promoting understanding through education has been important since its inception in 1993, in a post-9/11 world this work has become critical in combating the rising anti-Muslim sentiment that has become common fare in the media, government, and the public square. A few recent examples of this include the continuing effort to tarnish Barack Obama's image and prior to that his presidential campaign with the "Muslim Smear." Accusing someone of being a Muslim or even being sympathetic to Muslims has become a common tactic. Similarly, the recent Park51 controversy over the building of a mosque in New York City and the planned Qur'an burning by a Florida pastor illustrate the growing spread of Islamophobia.
Polls in the years following 9/11 also point to the widespread nature of anti-Muslim sentiment. In a March 2006 ABC News poll, 1 in 2 people had an unfavorable view of Islam; 1 in 3 believed Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence; and 1 in 3 predicted a major world conflict between the West and Islam. In a 2007 Pew poll, the number of Americans who believed that Islam has little or nothing in common with their own religion spiked to 70% from 59% two years earlier. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, while nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have little or no knowledge of Islam, a majority dislike the faith. The polls show that 53% of Americans, more than half of the citizens in this country, view Islam in an unfavorable light, a percentage higher than for any other faith. The attitudes towards practitioners themselves was slightly better, with 43% of Americans admitting to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims, and 9% telling Gallup they feel "a great deal" of prejudice. The authors of the report point out that, "What really seems to impact one's perception of a group much more than knowing an individual is having a positive opinion of that group's distinguishing characteristic, which in this case is their faith."
The need for better education about Islam and Muslims, is borne out by previous surveys, including a 2006 Pew poll which showed that "perceptions about Islam improve by 50% if the person has a personal relationship with a Muslim than if not." A previous 2004 poll similarly indicated that those who had some knowledge of Islam or Muslims tended to have more positive attitudes. This illustrates the importance of education as a means of combating prejudice.
These anti-Muslim attitudes often result in real life consequences. According to a major civil rights organization, reported cases of Muslim civil rights complaints have been climbing. In 2008 calendar year, there were a total of 2,728 civil rights complaints, which represents a 3 percent increase in reported cases from 2007 (2,652 reports) and an 11 percent increase over cases reported in 2006 (2,467 reports).
Given the current political situation in the Middle East and throughout the world, ING's educational programs about Islam and Muslims and its promotion of interreligious tolerance has never been more important.