Pew Survey: American Views on Islam

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Those Americans who knew Muslims were more likely to say that their religious beliefs were similar and were less likely to claim Islam is a violent religion. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a poll of Americans in August 2009, asking some basic questions about how they view Islam and Muslims as well as some other faiths. This poll revealed that most Americans believe Muslims are discriminated against more than people of any other faith, but at the same time, they still believe Islam is very different than their own beliefs and promotes more violence than other faiths.

Nearly six out of 10 adults in the survey believed that Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, and even more of them, almost two-thirds, said that Islam and their own faith are somewhat or very different. More Americans say their religious beliefs are more similar to Buddhism than to Islam, even though a large majority of Americans claim to believe in the same God and same basic tenets as Muslims the world over. However, Americans do seem to be pretty discriminating in what religions they claim affinity with: 59 percent said their religious views were significantly different from Mormonism, 47 percent for Judaism, and 49 percent for Catholicism. Only Protestants tended to say their religious views were similar to one another’s.

Less than half of Americans claimed to personally know someone who is Muslim. Those who knew Muslims were more likely to say that their religious beliefs were similar and were less likely to claim Islam is a violent religion. The poll results seem to suggest that most Americans either know very little about the vast similarities between Islam and Christianity, or they are using very subjective and variable criteria such as culture, instead of actual religious beliefs, to claim affinity or lack of affinity between faiths.

If anything, the results of the survey suggest continued great need for education of the American public about what Islam really is and is not. While a very slight majority of Americans know that “Allah” refers to God (53 percent), and that “the Qur’an” is Islam’s sacred text (52 percent), far fewer possess adequate knowledge about how Muslims understand God, what is actually written in the Qur’an, or about the intimate connections between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Muslims face an uphill battle in disseminating factual information to the general non-Muslim public. They are continually countered with discrimination, misinformation, and media bias that portray Muslims as terrorists, “un-American”, or “anti-American”. Islamic beliefs are almost entirely left out of the equation. The media shows little or no interest in what Muslims really believe – instead, they grab on to false or misrepresented snippets such as “holy war” or “70 virgins in paradise” – phrases that have fueled the war machine rather than promoted truth.

The key to increasing American knowledge about Islam, and thus anti-Muslim discrimination, seems to be in personal relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. As the survey results showed, people who know Muslims are more likely to recognize similarities between faiths and less likely to attribute inherent violence to Islam and Muslims. When people develop friendships with Muslims, they usually come to trust the example of their Muslim friends over the impersonal messages in news and entertainment media. While countering bias and misinformation in the media is important, the best thing Muslims can do to promote a more accurate image of Islam and Muslims is to nurture friendly relationships with their non-Muslim neighbors, peers, and coworkers. Most Muslims of course do this naturally in their day-to-day living, but some isolate themselves or tend to minimize any public behavior or appearance of their faith out of fear, insecurity, or other similar worries. It is not necessary to shove one’s faith into the faces of others, but when Muslims are strong enough to be true to themselves in a public sphere, they help those around them to learn more about Islam and Muslims. In turn, Muslims also educate themselves about their community and dispel myths about non-Muslims and Americans that can prevail in isolated Muslim communities.

Out of concern for politeness, many Americans avoid asking direction questions to Muslims and others about their religious beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, this lack of open communication can allow misconceptions to fester. On the other hand, when Muslims engage themselves in their communities, they almost achieve positive results. As Muslims increase their community footprints, they also increase interfaith understanding and brotherhood.

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