Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

In Western Europe, familiarity with Muslims is linked to positive views of Muslims and Islam

A woman outside the East London Mosque after the first Friday prayers of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Across Western Europe, people who say they personally know a Muslim are generally more likely than others to have positive opinions of Muslims and their religion, according to a recent Pew Research Center study in 15 countries. However, knowing something about Islam – as opposed to personally knowing a Muslim – is less associated with these positive feelings.

This pattern is evident across several different questions the Center asked of non-Muslim Europeans to gauge attitudes toward Muslims, including whether they think Islam is compatible with their country’s culture and values and whether they would be willing to accept a Muslim as a member of their family.

Western Europeans who say they personally know a Muslim are more likely to disagree with a negative statement about Muslims

One question asked non-Muslim Western Europeans if they agree or disagree with the statement “In their hearts, Muslims want to impose their religious law on everyone else in the country.” In Switzerland – which has a relatively large Muslim population (about 6% of the total population) – those who say they personally know a Muslim are 37 percentage points more likely than those who do not to disagree with this statement. More than eight-in-ten (85%) of those who say they know a Muslim disagree with the statement, compared with just 48% of those who do not know a Muslim.

Large gaps also exist in the UK (37 percentage points), Austria (35 points), Germany (34 points), Ireland (29 points), Italy (27 points), Denmark (26 points) and France (24 points).

By contrast, there is less of a difference on this question between those who say they know “a great deal” or “some” about Islam and those who know “not very much” or “nothing at all.” Regardless of their level of knowledge about Islam, similar shares of people in most surveyed countries disagree with the statement that Muslims “want to impose their religious law on everyone else in the country.” Swiss adults who know a great deal or some about Islam, for example, are only 4 percentage points more likely to disagree with the statement than those who know less about Islam.

Regionally, more people say they personally know a Muslim than say they know a great deal or some about Islam (medians of 67% and 36%, respectively). In France, which has the highest percentage of Muslims in Western Europe (9%), nearly twice as many adults say they personally know a Muslim as say they have at least some knowledge of Islam (79% and 40%, respectively).

While knowing a Muslim is prevalent in most countries across Western Europe, it is less common in the United States, where 45% of adults know someone who is Muslim, according to a separate Pew Research Center study.

The survey in Western Europe was fielded amid ongoing political debates across the region about the role that Islam and Muslims should play in society. In the past year alone, the issue has played a prominent role in national elections in a number of Western European countries, including the 2017 elections in Austria and Germany and the 2018 election in Italy.