Americans growing more intolerant towards Islam
- Published on 31 August 2010
- Written by Connor Wood
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One of our culture’s most well-known truisms is that people fear the unknown. A new Pew opinion survey appears to bear this out, suggesting that the less well-educated about Islam Americans claim to be, the more intolerant of it they are. Given the political climate and world-changing events of the past decade, it’s perhaps unsurprising, if frustrating for advocates of interreligious dialogue, that large proportions of the American public express mistrust of the religion. But the fact that ignorance of Islam’s tenets and practices appears to be correlated with negative opinions of those exact tenets and practices could provoke a collective sigh of exasperation from those attempting to bridge religious divides in the United States.
The survey, released on August 24th, shows that negative attitudes toward Islam have grown in recent years, with 38% of respondents expressing an unfavorable opinion of the world’s second-largest religion in 2010, versus only 36% in 2005. While a two-point shift in unfavorable attitudes over the course of five years could be simply chalked up to statistical noise, an eleven-point drop in favorable attitudes probably reflects genuinely changing opinions: while 41% of the American public registered a positive opinion of Islam in 2005, only 30% do today.
People with less education also reported much less favorable views of Islam. While only 20% of those with high school diplomas or less said they thought positively of the religion, a full 47% of those with college degrees or higher had positive perceptions. College graduates were also far more likely to say that they knew at least something about Islam. 63% of college grads said they knew “some or a great deal” about the faith, while less than a third of high school grads said the same thing.
Assuming that the college graduates weren’t simply exaggerating to show off, this finding suggests that Americans who know less about Islam are much less likely to be tolerant of it. While it’s natural to mistrust the unknown, these data do raise questions about the ability of the American media and educational system to provide relevant, myth-busting information about Islam to the public. If the national conversation on Islam is going to be informed by facts and insight rather than stereotypes and vague fears, the Pew survey suggests that a concerted educational outreach effort may be needed.
However, while many of the survey’s findings are bad news for Islam, several statistics hint that such an outreach effort could find a more open-minded public than might be expected. While In August of 2007 a majority of Americans considered Islam more likely than other religions to incite violence, in this month’s survey most respondents said that Islam is no more violent than any other religion. And perhaps most interestingly – given the recent controversy surrounding a proposed mosque near the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan – a strong majority of respondents opined that Muslims should be given the same rights as other religious groups when it comes to building houses of worship in American communities: 62% of all respondents said Muslims deserve equal building rights, including 74% of college grads and even 54% of those holding high school diplomas or less. The only group not showing a majority agreement with Muslim building rights? Republicans, only 47% of whom agreed that Muslims should be allowed to build in any community they choose.
For the full survey, click here.