Americans are learning more about Islam, and familiarity with the faith makes people more likely to view Muslims favorably and less likely to believe Islam encourages violence, according to a new study.
The survey by the Pew Research Center also showed that Americans still believe Muslims face far more discrimination than the nation’s other religious groups.
The findings can be linked because increased knowledge about Muslims is tied to more sensitivity about bias they face, said Greg Smith, the report’s senior researcher.
“To say that Muslims are discriminated against … it’s not the same thing as expressing an unfavorable view of Muslims. In fact it’s just the opposite,” he said. “People who are most sympathetic to a group are more likely to see that group as being discriminated against.”
In the annual survey released Wednesday, 58 percent of Americans said there was “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims. Jews were seen as the religious group with the next highest level of bias against them, with 35 percent saying they faced a lot of discrimination.
Homosexuals were the only group seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims, with almost two-thirds of Americans saying homosexuals are discriminated against a lot.
According to the Pew survey, belief among Americans that Islam encourages violence has fluctuated since the Sept. 11 attacks.
By 2007, 45 percent of Americans believed Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence. This year, that number fell to 38 percent. The group most likely to say Islam encourages violence this year was conservative Republicans, at 55 percent. But that dropped 13 percent from two years ago, making them the group with the biggest change of opinion since 2007.
The survey, conducted by telephone, also indicated that Americans have grown steadily more knowledgeable about Islam: 41 percent knew that the Muslim name for God is Allah and the Quran is the Islamic sacred text, compared to 33 percent in March 2002.
The “small and gradual, but noticeable” change has an affect, Smith said. Those most familiar with Islam were least likely to link the religion with violence. Fifty-seven percent of people who knew the names Muslims use to refer to God and their sacred text, and were also acquainted with a Muslim, said Islam did not encourage violence more than other faiths.
The same percentage of that group said their overall opinion of Muslims was favorable and 70 percent of that group said there’s discrimination against Muslims.
Only 21 percent of those with a low familiarity with Islam had a favorable opinion of Muslims, and less than half of that group saw a lot of discrimination against them.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Pew’s findings back up his own group’s research. He blamed a “vocal minority” in the U.S. for fanning anti-Muslim bias with increasingly harsh rhetoric since 9/11.
“Unfortunately, people have focused on that tiny, tiny minority of Muslims who have carried out violent acts, and claim to act in the name of Islam,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine, nine percent of all Muslims will live and die without coming near an act of violence.”
Seemi Choudry, a 20-year-old Muslim student at Loyola University in Chicago, was skeptical of the report’s findings that said Americans were more familiar with Islam.
“If they are learning Islam through mass media and pop culture, that’s easily accessible stuff,” she said. “I don’t know that’s the type of Islam that I would want to be infiltrated with.”
The survey did not address where or how Americans were getting information about Islam.
Choudry said she has not experienced any discrimination personally, but feels that Muslims on the whole are treated differently.
“We do suffer discrimination, which is the consequence of a lack of knowledge or ignorance,” she said.
Most of the findings came from a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 11-17 among 2,010 adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. Some findings also came from another survey of 2,003 adults conducted Aug. 20-27.
Hooper said continuing education about Islam is the key to fighting prejudice. In June, CAIR began a campaign to distribute free copies of the Quran to 100,000 local and national leaders, from President Obama to local school principals.
“When knowledge about Islam goes up, prejudice goes down,” Hooper said.
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