But a new ABC News/Beliefnet poll points to a different reality. Despite the fact that America is at war with a terrorist who regularly invokes Islam to justify mass murder, Americans have a surprisingly positive view of the religion:
41% of Americans view Islam favorably, compared to 24% whose views are unfavorable.
42% of Americans believe Islam teaches respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims, compared to 22% who believe it doesn't.
57% of Americans don't believe Islam encourages violence, versus 14% who view it as a violent religion.
The percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of Islam has been dropping. In an Oct. 9 poll 47% had a favorable view, 39% said unfavorable and 13% said they didn't know. Today: 41% said favorable, 24% said unfavorable and 35% said don't know.
These positive impressions persist, even though 61% say they know little about the religion.
Part of the explanation may lie with President Bush. Since Sept. 11, he's gone out of his way to portray Islam positively. Primarily, he has done this to to further his anti-terrorism goals, but he has mentioned Muslims favorably since his days in Texas, before his run for the Presidency. In November, Bush hosted a Ramadan dinner at the White House (a first). Earlier, he posed for pictures with the "holy Qur'an" on his desk and declared Islam a peaceful religion.
Bush's efforts may have been partially responsible for the drop in the number of people with an unfavorable view of Islam and an increase in the percentage with "no opinion" to 35%, up from 13% in October. "We've had a great campaign from the President arguing that we shoudn't discriminate against Muslims, so the public may be picking up on this idea of being nice to your Muslim neighbor," says John Green, a religion and politics expert who directs the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
The ABCNews/Beliefnet poll also showed that those who did know more about the religion were more positive. "Americans who feel they're familiar with the basic tenets of Islam are much more likely than others to call it peaceful, to say it teachest respect for non-Mulsims and to view it favorably overall," says Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News.
Perhaps because they are not sure what to think, Americans are inquiring more directly about the faith, prompting a big increase in sales of books about Islam. According to Publishers Weekly, before to Sept. 11, not one of the top 1,000 religion books on Amazon dealt with Islam. Today, among the top 10 titles in religion, four deal in part or entirely with Islam. During the same time period, 23% of Internet users turned to online sources to get information about Islam, according to a December survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Meanwhile, mosques nationwide have opened their doors to non-Muslim neighbors for open houses--only to be surprised by an outpouring of curiosity, when as many as a couple hundred people have appeared.
Interestingly, however, most American Muslims believe their neighbors dislike Islam. Fifty-seven percent of American Muslims said in a December survey by Zogby International that they believe the attitude of Americans toward Muslims and Arabs since Sept. 11 has been unfavorable. And 52% said they have experienced the very backlash Bush is trying to prevent.
"This latest [ABCNews/Beliefnet] survey challenges Muslims," says Zahid Bukhari, co-director of Georgetown University's Project MAPS: Muslims in the American Public Square. "It shows that the American public wants to make an informed decision about Islam. The silver lining for Muslims is that if they tell their story, the general opinion of them will be more favorable."
There is no doubt that even before Sept. 11, Islam was well on its way to becoming a mainstream American religion. In the 1940s, politicians felt comfortable talking about Christian beliefs. In the 1950s, they started to refer to "Judeo-Christian values." Now, they include Islam as one of the Big Three, as Bush did during the 2000 Presidential campaign when he talked regularly about the beneficial activities of "churches, synagogues and mosques."
This is, to be sure, a delicate balancing act for Bush. The ABCNews/Beliefnet poll shows that while conservative evangelical Christians are favorably inclined toward the faith (37% say they have a favorable view, versus 32% who say they don't), they have a noticeably more negative opinion of Islam on one particular question. When asked if they believe Islam teaches "respect for other religions," 41% of all respondents said yes, and 22% said no. But among white evangelical Protestants--Bush's bread-and-butter constituency--the numbers are almost equal (34% say the faith teaches respect, while 35% say it doesn't).
"We may be about to see a big debate in the evangelical community about how to approach the Islam issue," says Green.
Comments by Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, that Islam is an "evil" faith drew support from big pockets of evangelicals--and other evangelical leaders are still quietly grumbling that Bush is being too nice to Islam. But so far, Bush is successfully balancing the multiple agendas.
The Sept. 11 attacks may prove to be a positive turning point for Islam for another reason. Under the radar screen, there is a major discussion going on among American Muslims about the direction of their religion.
Even before last fall, American Muslims were growing their own style of Islam (just as Protestants, then Catholics, then Jews, and now Buddhists and Hindus did when they immigrated). In the last two decades, immigrant Muslims have built mosques all across the country and turned them into vibrant Islamic community centers--in a way that is unheard of in their home countries. Their children have shed the ways of the old countries and now, coming of age in the late 1990s, they have begun grappling with issues such as gender equality, reconciling democracy and Islam, throwing off anti-Semitism, and embracing interfaith dialogue, among other issues. Meanwhile, African-American Muslims, who make up about one-third of all Muslims in this country, have been quietly and ever-more-forcefully asserting themselves as leaders on the path toward a truly American style of Islam.
But Sept. 11 speeded up the process and dramatically increased the soul-searching of American Muslims. In the last four months, a movement to "reclaim" Islam in the West is emerging. An assortment of moderate and liberal Muslims have begun organizing, writing and speaking about "modernizing," even "reforming," their faith.
Zahid Bukhari of Georgetown says he notices a new clarity among American Muslims. "They know that they've gone from playing in the Little League to being pushed into a stadium to play Major League ball," he says. "Instead of being in their own cocoon, they have to be involved in American society."
American Muslims are in a very difficult position. They want to remain loyal to their countries of origin at the same time they defend what they view as the core values of their faith. But the terrorist attacks have forced their hands. The events of the past fall will probably accelerate a positive process that was occurring anyway. Though it hardly seems like it now, 20 years from today we may very well view this as the moment when Islam became a mainstream American religion.
This would seem to be a bleak time for Muslims in America. They've been targeted for police questioning, singled out on airplanes, seen mosques vandalized and heard popular religious figures such as Franklin Graham describe Islam as "evil." Not surprisingly, surveys show that Muslims believe other Americans don't like them.