Public attitudes about Muslims and Islam have grown more negative in recent years. About four-in-ten Americans (43%) say they have a favorable opinion of Muslims, while 35% express a negative view. Opinion about Muslims, on balance, was somewhat more positive in 2004 (48% favorable vs. 32% unfavorable). As in previous surveys, Muslim Americans are seen more positively than Muslims (53% vs. 43%); however, unfavorable opinions of Muslim Americans have also edged upward, from 25% in 2005 to 29% currently.
There continue to be substantial age, education, political and religious differences in opinions about both Muslims and Muslim Americans. Young people and college graduates express more favorable views of Muslims than do older people and those with less education. Fully 66% of liberal Democrats have a positive impression of Muslims, the highest proportion in any major demographic or political group. That compares with roughly half of conservative and moderate Democrats (48%) and the same number of independents, 41% of moderate and liberal Republicans, and just 26% of conservative Republicans.
Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants stand out for their negative views of Muslims. While roughly half of white mainline Protestants (51%) and white Catholics (48%) express favorable views of Muslims, only about quarter of white evangelicals (24%) say the same. Similar religious divisions are seen in views of Muslim Americans.
The biggest influence on the public’s impressions of Muslims, particularly among those who express an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, is what people hear and read in the media. About a third of the public (32%) — including nearly half of those who offer a negative opinion of Muslims (48%) — say what they have seen or read in the media has had the biggest influence on their views. Other factors, such as personal experience and education, are less influential, though they are cited far more often by those who have favorable impressions of Muslims than those who express negative views.
Islam and Violence
Public opinion about whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has fluctuated in recent years. In 2005, a plurality (47%) said that Islam does not encourage violence more than other religions; 36% said Islam is more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers. In the current survey, the balance of opinion has shifted: a 45% plurality says Islam is more likely to encourage violence, while 39% disagree. The current measure is similar to public views on this issue in 2003 and 2004.
The belief that Islam encourages violence has increased among groups that express mostly negative views of Muslims, such as conservative Republicans, but also among those groups that have relatively favorable opinions of Muslims, such as college graduates. The proportion of college graduates saying Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has increased by 17 points (from 28% in 2005 to 45% today). College graduates are now about as likely as those with no college experience (44%) to express this point of view.
Similarly, there have been sharp increases in the percentages of white mainline Protestants and people with no religious affiliation who believe that the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence (by 19 points and 14 points, respectively).
Muslim Religion Viewed as Different
Fully 70% of non-Muslims say that the Muslim religion is very different from their own religion, compared with just 19% who say Islam and their own religion have a lot in common. Two years ago, 59% viewed Islam as very different from their own religion. And in November 2001, just 52% expressed this view.
Large majorities in every demographic and political group say that their religion is very different from the Muslim religion. However, there are sizable differences in opinions about this: 83% of white evangelical Protestants view Islam as very different, compared with 74% of black Protestants, 69% of white non-Hispanic Catholics and 66% of white mainline Protestants.
Islam in a Word
When asked for the single word that best describes their impression of Islam, far more Americans mention negative words than positive ones (30% vs. 15%); roughly a quarter (23%) characterize the religion with neutral words; about a third (32%) do not offer an opinion.
The single most common word used to describe the Muslim religion is “devout,” or a variant of this word, such as “devotion” or “devoted”; 43 respondents use one of these words to describe their impression of Islam. Nearly as many (40 respondents in all) say that words like “fanatic” or “fanatical” come to mind when thinking about Islam. Other words commonly used to describe impressions of Islam include “different” (35 total responses), “peace” or “peaceful” (34 responses), “confused” or “confusing” (31 responses), “radical” (30 responses), “strict” (26 responses) and “terror” or “terrorism” (25 responses).
More Familiar, More Positive
Nearly half of all non-Muslims (45%) say they know someone who is Muslim, while 41% say that they know a great deal (7%) or some (34%) about the Muslim religion. The proportion of the public expressing at least some familiarity with the Muslim religion has increased modestly from 33% in 2005; in 2002, 34% said they knew a great deal or some about the Muslim religion.
Nearly two-thirds of college graduates (64%) say they know a Muslim, compared with 53% of those with some college experience and just 32% of those with a high school education or less. Similarly, far more college graduates than those with less education say they have at least some knowledge of the Muslim religion and its practices.
There also are substantial age differences in familiarity with Muslims and knowledge of their religion. Roughly half of those ages 18-29 say they know a Muslim, as do 50% of those ages 30-49 and 45% of those in their 50s and early 60s; however, just 29% of those ages 65 and older say they are acquainted with a Muslim. The gap is comparable across age groups in self-reported knowledge of the Muslim religion.
The survey shows that knowing a Muslim is associated with more positive views of the religion. Among those who know a Muslim, for instance, a majority (56%) has a favorable overall impression of Muslims, compared with just 32% of those who are not acquainted with a Muslim.
This pattern extends across several other measures of views of Muslims and Islam. Among those who know a Muslim, most (59%) say that a Muslim candidate’s religion would make no difference in deciding how to vote in a presidential election. But among those who do not know a Muslim, a majority (52%) says they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.
People who say they know a Muslim are divided over whether the Muslim religion encourages violence; 50% say it does not, while 42% say it does. By 48%-29%, those who do not know a Muslim say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.