Poll: Americans Skeptical of Islam and Arabs


March 8, 2006 — -- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There are some differences between the sexes on these questions. Fifty-two percent of men have an unfavorable view of Islam; that declines to 40 percent of women. One reason: Sixty-six percent of men think Islam has more violent extremists than other religions; fewer women, 51 percent, agree.

There also are some racial differences. Thirty percent of whites, compared with 18 percent of nonwhites, admit to feelings of prejudice against Muslims. Similarly, whites are 11 points more likely than nonwhites to admit to feelings of prejudice against Arabs.

Attitudes about Islam are intertwined with both political and religious components. On several measures, as noted, wariness toward Islam peaks among evangelical white Protestants, about 18 percent of the U.S. population. Muslims, by contrast, account for just about 1 percent.

While 46 percent of all Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam overall, among evangelical white Protestants, it's 61 percent. Likewise, evangelical white Protestants are 12 points more apt to think Islam encourages violence and nine points more apt to say it teaches intolerance. And 36 percent of evangelical white Protestants admit to some feelings of prejudice against Muslims.

Views of Islam, its teachings and its followers are somewhat more positive among Catholics and those with no professed religion. But even among these groups, skepticism is common, as are feelings of prejudice.

Like the white evangelical Protestants who make up part of the party's base, Republicans tend to hold more negative views of Islam. They're more likely than Democrats to think Islam fails to teach tolerance, encourages violence, and contains a disproportionate number of violent extremists.

Correspondingly, Republicans are 14 points more likely than Democrats to have an unfavorable view of Islam; they're also more likely to have some feelings of prejudice against Muslims. Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to admit prejudice toward Arabs.

Views on Islam are generally more favorable among young adults, aged 18 to 29, than among those over 30, with seniors who are least familiar with the religion being the most negative.

Fifty-six percent of those under 30 hold a favorable view of the religion, compared with 43 percent of all adults. Among seniors, favorability sinks to 29 percent. Young adults also are more likely to see Islam as a peaceful religion and say it teaches respect. One in 10 young adults admits some feelings of prejudice against both Arabs and Muslims, compared with 19 percent of those over 30.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 2-5, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

For complete results, click here.

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