March 20, 2002

Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad

Part 2: Views of Islam and Religion in the World

Americans continue to feel favorably toward Muslims and Muslim-Americans, but the public is much less positive in its view of Islam. Few see any common ground between their own religion and the Muslim faith, while more than a third (36%) perceive widespread anti-Americanism among Muslims around the globe.

Familiarity with Islam and its practices does not ease the concerns that many Muslims are anti-American. People who are knowledgeable about Islam tend to feel more favorably toward it, and they see themselves having more in common with Muslims. At the same time, they are just as likely as those who know nothing at all about Islam to see widespread anti-Americanism among Muslims, and just as likely to believe that violence is often linked to religious teachings in general.

Favorable View of Muslims, Less So for Islam

Muslim-Americans are rated favorably by 54% of the public, down slightly from 59% in mid-November, but still significantly higher than this time last year (45%). Fewer than a quarter (22%) express an unfavorable opinion of Muslim-Americans, up slightly from 17% four months ago.

Some respondents were asked for their opinion of “Muslims” without identifying them by nationality and this difference in phrasing has some effect on opinions. A 47% plurality feels favorably toward Muslims, with 29% expressing an unfavorable view.

But the larger distinction is between ratings of Muslims as individuals and perceptions of Islam generally. When asked for its opinion of Islam, the public is divided, with 38% saying they have a favorable view of the religion, and 33% unfavorable. This represents a modest shift from an ABC/Beliefnet poll taken in January, when 41% expressed a favorable opinion of Islam and just 24% felt unfavorably.

While predominantly favorable, public views of Muslims continue to lag behind most other religious groups. Protestants, Catholics and Jews are rated favorable by roughly three-quarters of the public, with only around one-in-ten expressing unfavorable opinions of these groups.

Young People More Positive

A majority of those under age 30 express a favorable view of Muslim-Americans, Muslims, and Islam alike (57%, 57% and 51% respectively). Older Americans generally have a favorable opinion of Muslim-Americans; however, they express more skepticism toward Muslims and Islam.

Americans age 65 and older in particular express mixed views when it comes to Muslims and Islam. By 43%-25%, members of this group say they feel favorably toward Muslim-Americans, but seniors who were asked about Muslims rated them less positively (30% favorable/30% unfavorable). Just one-in-four has a favorable opinion of Islam, while 37% express an unfavorable opinion.

College-educated Americans also express more favorable views of Muslims and Islam than those who did not attend college. Education has a particularly strong effect on perceptions of the Islamic religion. While about half (52%) of college graduates have a favorable view of Islam, just 29% of those who never attended college agree.

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants have the least favorable view of Islam. Fully 45% of white evangelicals say they have an unfavorable opinion of Islam, compared with just 29% who rate the religion favorably. White evangelicals also are most likely to say they have an unfavorable view of Muslim-Americans. As many as three-in-ten feel unfavorably toward Muslim-Americans, compared with about two-in-ten among other major religious groups. Still, this is less than the 38% of white evangelicals who rated Muslim-Americans unfavorably a year ago.

Negative views of Islam also have ideological and regional components. Political conservatives express substantially more unfavorable views of Islam than do liberals, and negative opinions of Islam tend to be greatest in rural areas and in the South.

Islam Is Different

Clearly, many Americans make a distinction in their opinions of Muslims and their view of Islam, which is much more negative. So it is perhaps not surprising that relatively few Americans think that their own religion and Islam have much in common. Just 27% see similarities between the Muslim religion and their own religion, while more than half (57%) see Islam as very different. This gap has increased since mid-November, when 52% saw major differences between their religion and Islam, and 31% saw similarities.

Opinion on this issue among college graduates, who hold the most favorable views of Islam, have shifted dramatically over the past four months. In November, roughly half of college graduates saw common ground between their own religion and the Muslim religion, while 38% did not. Today, just 40% see similarities between their religion and Islam, while substantially more (49%) see major differences. Even so, college graduates remain twice as likely as those who did not attend college to see similarities between their religion and Islam (40% vs. 19%).

Roughly a third of white mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and white Catholics say their faith and the Muslim faith have a lot in common. But just 16% of white evangelicals agree, and just 11% of highly committed white evangelicals say there is common ground with Islam, while 78% see wide differences.

These religious divides carry over into regional differences. More residents of the Northeast and West see Islam as having a lot in common with their own religion than those in the South and Midwest. And residents of small towns and rural areas feel they have less in common with Islam than those in larger cities and their suburbs.

Age and gender also are related to perceptions of Islam. Overall, three-in-ten respondents under age 65 say the Muslim religion and their own have a lot in common, compared with just 17% of those 65 and older. And more men than women see Islam as similar to their own faith (34% vs. 22%).

Mixed Views on Religion and Violence

The public is divided over how much of the Islamic world is anti-American. Nearly half (45%) think that just a few or some Muslims are hostile to the United States, but 36% think that as many as half or more of the world’s Muslims are anti-American. By comparison, a recent Gallup poll of nine predominantly Muslim countries found that 53% of respondents held an unfavorable view of the United States.

The public sees much less anti-Americanism among Muslims in this country. Fully 62% say some or just a few hold anti-American sentiments. Still, one-in-five think that at least half of the Muslims living in the U.S. are anti-American.

For the most part, the public rejects the idea that Islam in some way foments violence among its adherents. Roughly half (51%) say Islam is no more likely than other religions to encourage violence, while only a quarter say Islam is more associated with violence than other religions.

Yet there is a clear sense that some religions are more likely to encourage violence. While half of respondents were asked specifically whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, half were asked the same about “some religions.” In the latter case, a 47% plurality said that some religions are more likely than others to encourage violence among their believers, while 41% disagreed.

There are similar patterns in the responses to each question. A higher proportion of conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians say “some religions” are more likely than others to encourage violence. More members of these groups also say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

In addition, those who believe some religions encourage violence tend to rate Muslim-Americans somewhat less favorably, and see more hostility toward the U.S. among Muslims. More than four-in-ten (45%) of those who believe some religions encourage violence think at least half the Muslims in the world are anti-American. Among those who think all religions are the same in this regard, just 29% see widespread hostility toward America among Muslims.

Young Most Aware of Islam

Few Americans feel they know a lot about the Muslim religion. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say they know little or nothing about Islam and its practices, while just 5% say they know a great deal about the religion. This is virtually identical to how Americans felt in mid-November 2001.

While just 34% say they know a great deal or some about Islam, nearly half (47%) knew that Muslims use the term “Allah” to refer to God and nearly as many (43%) know that the Islamic equivalent to the Bible is the “Koran.”

Young people tend to be more knowledgeable about Islam than their elders. Among those under age 30, 56% can identify Allah as the correct answer, compared with 35% of those age 65 and older. Overall, more than half of seniors (56%) could answer neither question correctly, compared with just 37% of those under age 30.

Knowledgeable, Still Wary

Americans who are familiar with basic aspects of the Muslim faith ­ those who can correctly identify the Koran and Allah ­ rate Muslims and Islam far more favorably than those who know little or nothing about Islam. And people who are familiar with Islam are almost three times as likely as those who know little or nothing (41% vs. 15%) to think the Muslim faith has a lot in common with their own religion.

Yet knowledge of Islam does not necessarily lead people to believe there is less anti-American hostility among Muslims or that Islam is no more violent than other religions. Americans who know rudimentary facts about Islam are, if anything, more likely to see anti-American sentiment among half or more Muslims around the world. And as to whether some religions or Islam are more likely to encourage violence among believers, familiarity with the religion has no effect on people’s evaluations.

Religion in the World

Regardless of their feelings about Islam, Americans remain staunchly supportive of religion’s influence both in America and in the world. Half think that religion’s influence in the world is currently in decline, and the vast majority who believe this think it is a bad trend (85%), not a good one (9%). Among the minority (38%) who think that religion’s influence in the world is currently on the rise, there is only slightly less uniformity. Three-quarters (73%) say the increasing influence of religion in the world is a good thing, just 18% think it is bad.

When asked to consider lessons from the terrorist attacks, the public’s view does not change. By nearly two-to-one, more believe that the bigger lesson of Sept. 11 is that religion has too little influence in the world (51%) than think the lesson is that religion has too much sway (28%).

Perspectives on the role of religion in the world depend largely on the importance of religion in a person’s own life. Highly religious Americans, by nearly ten-to-one, see the terrorist attacks signifying that religion has too little influence in the world these days (73%), not too much (8%). But among those for whom religion is not particularly important, a 48% plurality say the bigger lesson is that religion is too influential, while 32% take the opposing viewpoint. This “commitment gap” exists within all religious groups.

Aside from those who are not strongly religious, men and younger people also express somewhat more skepticism about the role of religion in the world. Whereas women predominantly say the lesson of Sept. 11 is that religion has too little influence in the world (58%), men are more divided (44% say too little, 35% too much). Those under age 30 are split as to whether the lesson of 9/11 is that there is too much (37%) or too little (44%) religion in the world, while older people strongly believe the latter.

At the same time, Americans believe that religion’s effect is not always positive. One-third of Americans (34%) say religion plays a major role in causing most wars and conflicts in the world, and nearly as many (31%) say it has a fair amount to do with wars and conflicts. This view is most prevalent among seculars, men, and college graduates.