No one would have been surprised if, after 9/11, rage-filled Americans blamed Islam as the culprit. After all, the nation was just attacked in the name of Allah. Then, it might have been assumed, the antagonism would have faded as people gained a more nuanced understanding of Islam and the terrorists' twisted use of doctrine.

Instead, something close to the opposite has happened. A surprising new ABCNews/Beliefnet poll shows that after starting out tolerant, public opinion has turned sharply against Islam.

  • The percentage of Americans having an unfavorable view of Islam has jumped from 24% in January 2002 to 33% now.
  • Americans who say that Islam "doesn't teach respect for other faiths" rose from 22% to 35%.
  • Seventy-three percent of Americans do not feel they have a good basic understanding of its beliefs and tenets, and that, too, has risen, from 61 percent last winter. This suggests that any additional information people have gleaned about Islam has confused more than clarified.
  • Meanwhile, evangelical white Protestants are 22 points more likely than mainstream white Protestants to express an unfavorable opinion of Islam. They're also more likely, but by much smaller margins, to think Islam encourages violence and doesn't teach respect for other beliefs.
  • Now January Change
    Unfavorable opinion of Islam 33% 24 +9
    Think Islam doesn't teach respect for other faiths 35 22 +13
    Think Islam encourages violence 23 14 +9

    The survey was completed just before the Beltway sniper-who is a Muslim--was caught; therefore, it is possible the negative numbers could worsen.

    Why did public opinion shift?

    The Bush Factor--The most significant moment in 2001 on this issue was when President Bush stood before the nation just days after the attack and declared, "Islam is a religion of peace." He followed that up with a series of symbolic gestures: hosting a Ramadan dinner at the White House (a first) last November, posing for pictures with the Qur'an on his desk, inviting American Muslim leaders to his office, and visiting a Washington mosque.

    Since most Americans knew little about Islam, Bush was, initially, America's teacher. He did it for a mix of practical and idealistic reasons. In diplomatic terms, it was crucial that the United States gain support from government like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. To get that support, it was important that the war on terror not be viewed as a war on Islam.

    Yes No
    Feel you have a good basic understanding of Islam 25% 73

    But even before his election, Bush had made a point of reaching out to Muslims. When he talked about religion during campaign speeches, he invariably referred to "churches, temples and mosques" a rhetorical innovation not before embraced by presidential candidates of either party.

    But conservative Christians were quietly unhappy with Bush's posture. One group, the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, encouraged members to "thank Franklin Graham for his faithfulness to Christ in the face of criticism." That was a reference to comments made by Billy Graham's evangelist son, in which he described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion-comments he has repeated numerous times in the last year. Slowly, one by one, they started voicing their concerns about Islam. At first, it was that Islam tended to cause violence, then that it was inherently violent. Then came direct, inflammatory attacks on the prophet Muhammad, with the head of the Southern Baptists calling Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile," Pat Robertson labeling him a "wild-eyed fanatic" and Jerry Falwell calling him "a terrorist."

    White Protestants
    Evangelical Non-evangelical
    View of Islam
    Favorable 31% 48
    Unfavorable 45 23
    Think Islam
    Respects other beliefs 30 43
    Doesn't respect others 41 31
    Think Islam
    Encourages violence 31 22
    Is a peaceful religion 49 55

    The most important figure was Franklin Graham, who has a much broader following than either Robertson or Falwell (except with TV show producers who love the controversial duo). What's more, he's personal friends with Bush and gave the invocation at the new president's inauguration. He is viewed as a mainstream evangelical leader.