A new survey of U.S. public attitudes toward Muslim-Americans and Islam finds that a majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- regard Muslim-Americans favorably, but that smaller numbers - only 41 percent -- have favorable impressions of Islam as a religion. The study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center indicates that many Americans perceive a link between Islam and violence, with more than one in three saying Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. Experts on Islamic-American relations believe such negative views stem from American ignorance of Islamic culture.
Muslims and Islamic culture have long been an integral part of American society. But today, almost years after the 9/11 attacks by radical Islamists and the start of America's war on terror, many Americans associate Islam with violence and extremism.
We asked a random sample of people in downtown Washington, DC, what immediately comes to mind when they hear the word "Islam". "Unfortunately, the first thought that I have is something maybe a little charged with aggression and negativity," said one woman. A man remarked, "The fact that I work in Washington, DC, makes me especially fearful of Islamic terrorism, especially in the time after September 11." Another woman shared her thoughts: "I know it is a religion founded by Muhammad, and that he was a General, a warrior." Another man talked about his fears: "It brings a little bit of fear to me after being here on September 11th and watching the planes go in."
The Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center did a more scientific survey. Gregory Smith, who co-authored the study say, "Only about four in 10 say they have favorable views of Islam, and there is also a minority of the public - but a substantial minority, about one third in our survey last summer - who say that they are concerned that Islam encourages violence among its believers."
American Muslim leaders blame the US news media for generating what Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council for American Islamic Relations calls "Islamophobia".
"The kind of coverage that the American audience has been receiving about Islam and Muslims leads one to just one conclusion, that Islam is bad and Muslims are violent," he said. "The media has failed to capture the reality of the Muslim world and only focused on the actions of the few."
One of the problems with the media's portrayal of Islam, experts say, is that violent acts committed by Islamic terrorists aligned with al-Qaida make the news far more often than the peaceful aspects of Islamic culture.
Dr. Yvonne Haddad is Professor of Islamic History at the Center for Muslim -Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. "It is very difficult for Americans to distinguish between al-Qaida and not al-Qaida," she said. "It is very difficult for them to distinguish between the few people who are terrorists and the rest of Muslims who are just people trying to make their living, trying to raise their kids and have a peaceful life."
According to the Pew Research Center study, public perceptions depend heavily on a few key factors. Gregory Smith explained. "One of the most powerful factors shaping views of Islam is education," he said. "Those Americans who have more education tend to be more favorable toward Muslim Americans and Islam than Americans with less education. Interestingly, age was also a good predictor of views of Muslim Americans and Islam, with young people tend to be more favorable than were older people."
Betsy McCormick, a working professional, says she gained a more positive view of Islam by traveling and having direct contact with Islamic culture in the Middle East: "I guess there are a lot of distorted views, because I have traveled to Egypt and I sort of witnessed the practice of the religion and I found it very enriching and very interesting," she said.
Some Americans, including Patricia Hagen, believe a dialogue among the people of the three monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - is the best approach to overcome misunderstandings. "Better understanding - and I think it is got to come from within all of the three major religions, to work together," she said. "Coming from a Christian background, Abraham is the founder of Judaism [and] Christianity as well as Islam, so we came from the same foundation, now we have to build upon that foundation."
But building that trust will be a challenge. The Pew study suggests many Americans believe the terrorist attacks of recent years are just the first salvoes of an intensifying conflict between Islam and the West.