July 24, 2003

Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus

Part IV. Changing Perceptions of Islam

In this section
More See Muslims Abroad as Anti-American
But Opinions of Muslim-Americans Mostly Unchanged
Substantially higher numbers of Americans today than in 2002 believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its followers. At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of people who say that, in general, religion plays a large role in causing wars. Nearly half of the public thinks that half or more of Muslims worldwide hold anti-American views, up from just over a third who felt this way in 2002. Despite these shifting views, however, there has been only a modest growth in negative sentiment toward Muslim-Americans.

In the current poll, 44% of Americans say that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, up from 25% in the March 2002 poll. This opinion is as prevalent among better educated individuals and those who are more knowledgeable about Islam as among the less educated and less knowledgeable. And where white evangelicals once stood out for their belief that Islam is more likely to encourage violence, there are fewer religious differences now.

In 2002, more highly committed white evangelical Protestants than people of other religious traditions held this opinion ­ 41% compared with 25% of white mainline Protestants, 24% of white Catholics, and 24% of black Protestants. Seculars were least likely to hold this view; only 18% agreed in 2002. Today, evangelicals and mainline Protestants have the same opinion: 51% of evangelicals and 50% of mainline Protestants agree that the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence, while this opinion also has grown among white Catholics (39%), black Protestants (37%), and seculars (38%).

People who consider themselves politically conservative are most likely to connect Islam and violence. More than half of conservatives (54%) say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, compared with 43% of moderates and just 32% of liberals. And while this sentiment has increased among all three ideological groups, the liberal-conservative gap is greater today than a year ago. Similarly, the South stood out in 2002, with 31% saying Islam was more violent (compared with 24% or fewer in other parts of the country); now, people in all regions have roughly comparable views on this issue.

In addition, more than four-in-ten Americans (44%) believe that religion in general plays a large role in causing wars, compared with 34% last year. Growth in this view has been greatest among mainline Protestants; 44% of white mainline Protestants now express this view compared with 30% in March 2002. By contrast, the percentage of white evangelicals believing this has grown by only five percentage points (from 31% to 36%). Seculars (at 56%, up from 46%) remain the most committed to this perception; black Protestants are the least (30%, up from 24%).

In 2002, far fewer women than men thought religion had a great deal to do with starting wars; only 28% said this, compared with 40% of men. Today, men and women are much closer in this perception: 42% for women, 46% for men.


More See Muslims Abroad as Anti-American

In addition to growing concerns about Islam and violence, the public increasingly perceives anti-Americanism among Muslims around the world. In a separate survey conducted June 4-8 by the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter (24%) say most or almost all Muslims around the world hold anti-American views, and 25% say about half do.

In March 2002, by comparison, only 18% thought most or almost all Muslims felt this way, and an additional 18% thought about half were anti-American. This change in perception tracks closely with the actual trend in unfavorable views of the United States in many Muslim nations, as documented by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The percentage of Indonesians who hold favorable opinions of the U.S., for example, fell from 61% last summer to 15% in March 2003.


But Opinions of Muslim-Americans Mostly Unchanged

Yet growing views of Islam as a religion that encourages violence have not resulted in a significant change in American views of Muslims, Muslim-Americans, or even of Islam in general. A narrow majority of the public ­ 51% ­ has a favorable view of Muslim-Americans, and only 24% have an unfavorable view (25% have no opinion). This is about the same rating as last year (54% favorable), but down from the 59% rating in a November 2001 poll, just a few months after 9/11.

Unfavorable ratings for Muslim-Americans have inched upward over this same time period from 17% soon after the attacks to 24% today. But Muslim-Americans remain slightly better regarded now than they were before 9/11; in March 2001, 45% had a favorable opinion of Muslim-Americans.

Opinions are slightly less favorable of Muslims who are not identified as Americans: 47% favorable, 31% unfavorable.(2) Neither measure has changed significantly since last year. Ratings of the Islamic faith remain lower than ratings for Muslims. In spite of the growing sense that Islam is a religion that encourages violence, however, general perceptions of Islam have not changed. Four-in-ten have a favorable impression of the religion, while 34% have an unfavorable opinion (26% have no opinion), virtually unchanged from 15 months ago.

As has been true in previous years, Muslims are less popular than people of other religious faiths but more popular than atheists. Muslim-Americans and Muslims are seen less favorably than Jews (72% favorable), Protestants (70%), and Catholics (69%), and slightly below evangelical Christians (58% favorable, 18% unfavorable). “People who aren’t religious” receive favorable ratings similar to Muslims (50%), but the public has a more unfavorable view of the non-religious (33% unfavorable). Majorities of the public continue to give atheists an unfavorable rating: 52%, compared with 34% favorable. Views of each of these groups have changed very little since March 2002.

Somewhat fewer people now than last year say that Islam and their own religion have a lot in common: 22% this year, compared with 27% in March 2002 and 31% in November of 2001. Catholics have changed the most on this measure, with 14% fewer saying their religion has a lot in common with Islam. Evangelicals and mainline Protestants have changed very little. Overall, far more among the college educated than the less educated see commonality between Islam and their religion, and the views of the college educated have changed very little since last year.