Pew Forum Poll: Only A Minority of Americans Hold Favorable Views of Muslims

Posted on September 10, 2009

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Time/ CNN

Eight years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Muslim Americans — particularly Muslim-American women — continue to face battles in their struggle for acceptance and the right to wear religious garb in public settings. A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Americans see Muslims as encountering more discrimination than any other religious group. But while Americans are more likely to be familiar with Islam or personally know a Muslim than they were at the time of the attacks, levels of tolerance are lower today than they were in the months immediately following Sept. 11. (See pictures of Muslims in America.)

It may be difficult to remember now, but just days after the attacks in New York City and Washington, President George W. Bush went out of his way to remind Americans not to confuse ordinary Muslims with the handful of terrorists who committed the violence. “We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror,” Bush said on Sept. 13, 2001.

The message appeared to sink in. A Pew Forum poll conducted that November found that only 17% of Americans held unfavorable views of Muslim Americans, a decrease from 24% just eight months earlier. The shift was most striking among conservative Republicans — in March 2001, 40% viewed Muslim Americans unfavorably, but by November, that number had plummeted by more than half to 19%. In the wake of the attacks, Americans were also reluctant to say that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths; only one-quarter agreed with that statement in March 2002. But by the time the war in Iraq began one year later, that view had changed dramatically, with 44% of Americans willing to associate Islam with violence.

Today, the broad tolerance that existed in the days following 9/11 has largely evaporated. Nearly 40% of Americans still say they think Islam is more likely to encourage violence, according to a new Pew Forum survey, and only a minority hold favorable views of Muslims (the latest poll does not distinguish between Muslims and Muslim Americans).

Muslim Americans are also increasingly battling to adhere to their religious beliefs in the workplace and other public spaces. In Philadelphia, the police department disciplined an officer for wearing a hijab (a headscarf that covers hair and sometimes the neck), and the move was upheld in court. Legislators in Oklahoma and Minnesota have proposed legislation that would prohibit women from wearing a hijab for drivers-license photos. And in Oregon, the state legislature just affirmed a law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious garb. The law was originally developed in the 1920s as an anti-Catholic measure aimed at priest collars and nun habits, and it was supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Now some Muslim advocates worry that they are being targeted the same way. “Attire is always a red flag,” says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council for Islamic-American Relations. “But what we’re seeing is the overall trend of a vocal minority in our society trying to block any accommodation to Muslims.” (See the top 10 religion stories of 2008.)

At the same time, Muslims have become a more familiar part of American society — nearly half of all Americans claim to personally know someone who is Muslim, compared with just 38% of Americans in November 2001. And that number will probably rise in the future, as familiarity with Islam and Muslims is much more common among younger Americans.

A majority of Americans under age 30 (52%) know a Muslim, but less than one-third (30%) of those over age 65 do. That’s significant because researchers have found that knowledge of Islam and Muslims tends to make an individual more inclined to express favorable views of the two. “People who know a Muslim tend to be less likely than others to see a connection between Islam and violence,” says Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum. [more]

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