Poll: Americans Skeptical of Islam and Arabs

Public views of Islam are one casualty of the post-Sept. 11, 2001 conflict: Nearly six in 10 Americans think the religion is prone to violent extremism, nearly half regard it unfavorably, and a remarkable one in four admits to prejudicial feelings against Muslims and Arabs alike.

Such views have worsened in the crucible of the post-9/11 world. Fifty-eight percent think there are more violent extremists within Islam than within other religions, up 20 points since early 2002.

Forty-five percent think mainstream Islam doesn't teach respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims, double what it was. A third believe mainstream Islam encourages violence against nonbelievers, more than double its early 2002 level.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

Prejudice

In the most basic measure, 46 percent of Americans express a generally unfavorable opinion of Islam, a new high and again nearly double what it was in early 2002 -- a troubling assessment of the world's second-largest religion, one practiced by an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide, or about 20 percent of humanity.

Views of Islamic Teachings
  Now 2002
More Violent Extremists in Islam?   58%   38%
Teaches Intolerance   45   22
Encourages violence   33   14

Unfamiliarity accompanies these suspicions: Nearly six in 10 Americans say they don't have a basic understanding of Islam, a number that hasn't changed substantially in recent years. Those who are more familiar with the religion are a good deal more likely to view it favorably, and to think of it as peaceful and respectful of other faiths.

Still, while people who feel familiar with Islam regard it more favorably, they're about as likely as others to report some personal feelings of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. Knowledge alone is not the key to tolerance.

Admissions of prejudice are not unique. In a 1999 ABC News poll, about a third of Americans (whites and blacks alike) admitted at least some "racist feelings." In a 2000 poll, far fewer, 6 percent, admitted feelings of prejudice against Jews.

Prejudice

In this survey, 27 percent of Americans admit at least some feelings of prejudice against Muslims; about as many, 25 percent, say they've had prejudiced thoughts toward Arabs. There are some differences among groups. Such feelings about Muslims peak among evangelical white Protestants, and among Republican men.

Prejudice
  Against Arabs Against Muslims
Heard prejudiced things   43%   34%
Have prejudiced feelings   25   27
Have prejudiced
friends/relatives
  18   15

Such views get expressed publicly. More than four in 10 say they've recently heard prejudiced comments against Arabs, and about a third say they've heard biased remarks against Muslims. About one in six say they have friends or relatives who are outright prejudiced against these groups.

Not all of the recent trends have been negative. Skepticism about Islamic teachings grew mainly in 2002 and 2003, but have steadied. Some positive views also have improved, with "undecideds" going down. For example, 41 percent now say mainstream Islam teaches respect for other faiths, compared with 31 percent in 2003. And 54 percent call it a peaceful religion; it was 46 percent in 2003.

Still, as noted, basically negative views of Islam are up. The 46 percent who hold an unfavorable view of the religion represent an eight-point increase since 2003, to the most since 9/11.

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