“A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” was what President Donald Trump called for during the elections. Barely a week into his new role, he signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending America's Syrian refugee programme.

The president and his team maintain the decision was made to keep America safe from terrorists. Others see it as symptomatic of a broader wave of anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping across the US.

But according to a survey of Americans carried out in the lead-up to the elections, the reality is more complicated – and positive – than first meets the eye.

The survey, carried out by the University of Maryland, asked Americans what they felt of both Islam and Muslim people. It did so at various points in time: in November 2015; in May 2016, just before the Orlando attack; in June 2016, shortly after the attack; and in October 2016, at the tail end of an election campaign during which Republican candidate Trump was accused of waging war on Islam.

The results might surprise you. When Americans were asked how they felt about Muslim people, 53% expressed a favourable view in November 2015; a year later, that had risen to 70%.

Image: Washington Post

A similar trend can be observed when it comes to Islam. When Americans were asked what they felt about the Muslim religion, 37% expressed a favourable attitude in November 2015; a year later that had risen to 49% – a high not seen since before 9/11.

Image: Washington Post

So what explains this counter-intuitive development when it comes to attitudes towards Islam and Muslims? For Shibley Telhami, one of the authors of the study, breaking the answers down by political affiliation might offer a clue.

Writing in the Washington Post, he explains what he thinks is behind the shift: “As on almost all issues, partisan divisions intensified during a highly divisive election year. The more one side emphasized an issue – as happened with Trump on Islam and Muslims – the more the other side took the opposite position.”

In other words, when one side of a partisan divide is seen to be attacking something – in this case, Islam – the more the other side will come to its defense, even if that wasn’t their initial stance on the issue.

“Evidence suggests that during the election year, attitudes of most Americans towards Islam and Muslims improved overall precisely because Trump the candidate was seen to have the opposite view,” Telhami adds.

While that might be of little comfort to those directly affected by the changes to US immigration policy, it offers some hope to those who still believe a multi-cultural, ethnically and religiously diverse America is something worth celebrating.