The July 7 terrorist bombings in London drew considerable public attention and raised fears of another attack in the United States, but these concerns do not translate into less favorable opinions of either Muslim-Americans or Islam. And compared with 2003, fewer now say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted among 2,000 adults between July 7, the day of the first terrorist attacks in London, and July 17, finds a majority of Americans (55%) saying they have a favorable opinion of Muslim-Americans. That is roughly the same proportion that expressed positive opinions of Muslim-Americans in Pew surveys conducted in July 2003 and March 2002, and significantly higher than the 45% holding favorable views in March 2001, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Most striking in the wake of the terrorist attacks in London is that the number of Americans saying that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has fallen significantly to 36% in the current survey from 44% two years ago.
U.S. attitudes toward Islam as a religion remain generally less positive than opinions about Muslim- Americans, with 39% of the public registering a favorable view of Islam, compared with 36% holding an unfavorable view. A quarter of those polled (25%) offered no opinion. These numbers are little changed from earlier surveys. In addition, most Americans (59%) say they believe Islam to be very different from their own religion, though the number seeing much in common between Islam and their religion has risen slightly from 22% in 2003 to 27% today.
Islam and Violence
About a third of Americans (36%) say the Islamic religion is more likely to encourage violence among its followers, down from 44% two years ago. Among religious groups, the decline has been most pronounced among white mainline Protestants (22 points) and seculars (12 points).1
By contrast, views of whether Islam is more likely to promote violence are largely unchanged among white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics. About half of white evangelicals (49%) say the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence, while 31% disagree. White Catholics are split over this issue; 42% believe Islam is more likely to promote violence, while 43% say it does not encourage violence more than other religions.
Among political groups, there have been large declines in the numbers of conservative and moderate Democrats, and conservative Republicans, who say that Islam is more likely than other religions to promote violence. But there continues to be a wide political divide on this question. About twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats say Islam is more apt than other religions to encourage violence (49% vs. 25%).
Religion and Global Conflict
In broad terms, the public continues to believe that religion has at least a fair amount to do with causing wars and other conflicts in the world. Three-quarters say religion has a great deal (40%) or a fair amount (35%) to do with most wars and conflicts in the world. These attitudes are essentially unchanged from 2003, when 79% said religion had at least a fair amount of responsibility for causing most global wars and conflicts.
A smaller majority of Americans (65%) also see religion as having a role in causing political conflict in the U.S. There are few major differences among religious groups in their perceptions of religion’s role in causing political conflict in this country. Comparable numbers of white evangelical Protestants (62%) and seculars (66%) say that religion plays at least a fairly significant role in causing conflict in U.S. politics.
However, the public continues to decisively reject the idea that the terrorist attacks of recent years are part of a major conflict between the people of America and Europe on the one hand, and Islamic people on the other.
By about two-to-one (60%-29%), Americans say recent terrorist attacks represent only a conflict with a small radical group rather than a major clash between the West and Islam. But many of those who view it as a limited conflict think it will grow into a major world conflict (26% of the general public).
If anything, the belief that terrorism is part of a major conflict between the peoples of the West and Islam has declined a bit since 2002. Currently, about three-in-ten (29%) hold this view, down from 35% in August 2002. The balance of opinion on this measure held steady through the field period (see “Tempered Public Reaction to London Attacks,” July 11).
Opinions of Islam
As in past surveys, the public is divided in its opinion of Islam (39% favorable/36% unfavorable). There are substantial differences in attitudes toward Islam among religious groups, with white evangelical Protestants least likely to hold a favorable opinion (26%). Among high commitment evangelicals those who attend church at least weekly and who say that religion is very important in their lives just 21% express a favorable view of Islam.
Other religious groups take a more positive view of Islam. Identical percentages of seculars, white Catholics and mainline Protestants (42% each) express favorable opinions of Islam.
Age and education also are major factors in opinions of Islam. More than four-in-ten of those under age 50 (43%) hold favorable opinions of the Muslim faith, compared with a quarter of those ages 65 and older. Over half (53%) of people with a four-year college degree have a favorable opinion of Islam; by contrast, just 28% of those who have a high school education or less feel this way.
A plurality of Republicans (46%) express an unfavorable view of Islam; Democrats, on balance, have a favorable impression (47%). A small plurality of independents (42%) express favorable opinions of Islam.
Half Are Familiar With Islam Facts
About half of Americans were able to identify the Koran as the Islamic equivalent of the Bible (51%). That represents a modest increase from past years, when about four-in-ten knew this (42% in 2003). Similarly, about half (48%) correctly identified Allah as the name Muslims use to refer to God, no change from past surveys.
A substantial gender gap exists in knowledge of Islam, with men (57% of whom can identify Allah and 58% of whom can identify the Koran) much more knowledgeable than women (among whom only 40% can identify Allah and only 44% can identify the Koran).
Americans between the ages of 30 and 64 are more informed about Islam than are their younger counterparts and are dramatically more knowledgeable than are Americans older than 65. Interestingly, the percentage of young people (between 18 and 29) who are able to correctly identify Allah has actually declined (from 56% to 49%) since 2002.
As expected, those with higher levels of education show substantially greater familiarity with basic Islamic facts. Two-thirds (67%) of college graduates could correctly identify Allah as the name by which Muslims refer to God compared with just a third (33%) of those with a high school education or less.
Despite the intensive coverage of the religion in recent years, most Americans continue to say they do not know very much about the Muslim religion. Only 33% of the public claims to know “some” or “a great deal” about Islam, a level of self-professed knowledge very similar to that observed in 2002 and 2003.
Most Aware, Most Favorable
Those who are most knowledgeable about the basic facts of the Islamic religion continue to express more favorable opinions of Muslim-Americans and Islam than do those who are less familiar with the religion.
Among those most knowledgeable about Islam (as evidenced by their ability to identify both Allah and the Koran correctly), about six-in-ten (61%) view Muslim-Americans favorably while almost half (49%) hold a favorable view of Islam. These favorability ratings compare, respectively, with 47% and 24% among the lowest knowledge group.
The better informed are also more likely than others to think that Islam and their own religion have a lot in common (44% compared with 28% of those with moderate knowledge and only 12% among the least informed group), and are more likely to indicate that Islam does not encourage violence more than do other religions (59% take this view compared with 46% and 38% of those with moderate and low knowledge, respectively).
People most knowledgeable about Islam are also more likely to see recent terrorist attacks as part of a conflict with a small, radical group rather than as part of a major conflict between Westerners and Muslims.
Stable Views of Muslim-Americans
The public has a more favorable view of Muslim-Americans than of the Islamic religion, though the pattern of opinion is similar. Majorities in most major demographic groups have positive impressions of Muslim-Americans; some notable exceptions are people with a high school degree or less (44%), political conservatives (44%) and those ages 65 and older (40%). In no group do unfavorable opinions outnumber favorable ones.
Among religious groups, favorable attitudes toward Muslim-Americans are most prevalent among white Catholics (61%). Roughly half of white evangelical Protestants (53%), mainline Protestants (53%), and seculars (49%) express favorable opinions of Muslim-Americans.
Opinions of Other Religious Groups
The public continues to express overwhelmingly favorable opinions of Jews (77% favorable) and Catholics (73%). About six-in-ten (57%) express positive opinions of evangelical Christians, about the same number who have a favorable view of Muslim-Americans.
By comparison, just 35% express favorable opinions of atheists; 50% have a negative opinion of atheists. These opinions have been quite stable in recent years.
U.S. Views of Muslims Similar to Europe’s
In a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted earlier this year (May 18-22), 57% of the American public had a positive view of Muslims (as opposed to Muslim-Americans). That placed U.S. opinion of Muslims in the middle range of attitudes expressed in most European countries and Canada.
The 17-nation Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which was released earlier this month, found that majorities ranging from 72% in Great Britain and 64% in France to 60% in Canada and 55% in Russia say they have somewhat or very favorable views of Muslims, along with 46% pluralities in both Spain and Poland. Among European countries, only in the Netherlands and Germany are unfavorable views more prevalent than favorable. (See “Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics,” July 14).
About the Survey
Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 2,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, from July 7-17, 2005. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. For results based on Form 1 (N=1,000) or Form 2 (N=1,000) only, the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.
1. Seculars are people who describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, or have no religious preference and attend religious services a few times a year or less.