Belief Beat

A new poll has asked Americans how they feel about U.S. Rep. Peter King’s plans for a Congressional hearing on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism. In my story for Religion News Service, I noted that most Americans haven’t heard about the hearings yet, but a slim majority likes the idea — though a larger majority would support investigating religious extremism in general, not just among Muslims.

When we broke down the responses demographically, some interesting patterns emerged, including:

Overall, men, viewers who trust Fox News, white evangelicals and Republicans are more likely to think the hearings are a good idea and to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in the United States. Those groups are also among the most likely to say they feel “well informed” about Islam and the “religious beliefs and practices of Muslims.”

These groups aren’t necessarily more knowledgeable, however, just more confident in their beliefs, researchers explained. Researchers said a person’s preferred news source is significantly correlated to how much they worry about American Muslim extremism.

“What we’re seeing here is a significant Fox News effect,” explained Daniel Cox, PRRI research director. “We even see differences among Republicans who trust Fox News most and those who trust other media.”

Now we just need a study that looks into whether people who think they’re knowledgeable about Muslims/Islam actually are — you reading this, Stephen Prothero? I also wonder about the differences if respondents personally know/like any Muslims, though that kind of question would be tricky to ask and assess without delving into murky territory.

In any case, humans do have a tendency to fear the unfamiliar, as opposed to potential threats from our own communities. It’s one thing for  Americans to support the idea of a hypothetical probe into religious extremism — but if push came to shove, would they support the FBI bugging their confessionals, tapping their pastor’s phone, spying on coffee hour? As Islamophobia expert Peter Gottschalk explained, in a quote that didn’t make it into my story: “Most Americans were also in favor of the Patriot Act, because they didn’t think they were the ones who would be investigated – but, compare that to the outrage over the invasiveness of TSA screenings, which everyone experiences.”

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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