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.

    In August, he said during an interview that Muslims hadn't sufficiently apologized for the terrorist attacks--and he challenged Muslim leaders to offer to help rebuild Lower Manhattan or compensate the families of victims to show they condemn terrorism.

    That comment followed a string of remarks about Islam and Muslims, as Graham promoted his new book, "The Name." In the book, Graham writes that "Islam--unlike Christianity--has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."

    Think Islam encourages violence
    Now January Change
    All 23% 14 +9
    Evangelical white Protestants 31 20 +11
    Non-evangelical white Protestants 22 13 +9

    Then, in an interview with Beliefnet that month, he virtually mocked Bush's stance. After the terrorist attacks, he said, "there was this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion--but then you start having suicide bombers, and people start saying, 'Wait a minute, something doesn't add up here.'"

    Christians came to view Islam not only as a threat to the Mideast, but also as a threat to America and a threat to the souls of millions. Efforts begun before 9/11 to convert Muslims around the world picked up steam. A popular one targeted an area of the world called "The 10/40 Window," said to have the largest population of non-Christians in the world. The area, also called "the resistant belt," extends from 10 degrees to 40 degrees North of the equator, and stretches from North Africa across to China. It includes Indonesia, Sudan, Morocco, Ivory Coast, southern China, Iran, Turkmenistan and other countries.

    That this flood of criticism was never rebutted by Bush made Christian leaders feel this is fair game. Why didn't Bush rebut them? The most common answer from Bush defenders was that it is an inappropriate role for the president to "get in the middle of an argument like that." But given his strong statements on Islam, Bush had already inserted himself into the Islam discussion. His silence, particularly as his political allies began disagreeing with him, was therefore notable.

    It's important to distinguish between Graham and other Christian leaders. Unlike Robertson and Falwell, Graham has been relatively non-controversial and is thought to represent the mainstream evangelical base, one of Bush's crucial voting blocs. Graham's comments signaled how unpopular Bush's Islam-is-peace line had become with this important political group. There was no political cost to Bush after his initial statements; they were viewed as necessary comments to win the war. A direct rebuttal of Graham, however, could have alienated some of his supporters.

    On the other hand, it could be argued, a war-time leader needs to be more politically courageous. Bush had plenty of political capital to spend but chose not to. What's more, the comments from Pat Robertson gave Bush an opportunity. While Graham is a popular figure in evangelical circles and neutral with the general public, Robertson has strong appeal among his Christian Broadcast Network viewers but is considered a far more controversial and polarizing figure among the general public. Bush could have disagreed with Robertson, showing his opposition to extremism on all sides, without alienating his base. His unwillingness to do even that exhibits an extreme caution, and some would say, political cowardice, on Bush's part.

    White Protestants
    Calling Islam violent is: All Evangelical Non-evangelical
    Fair comment 23% 35 15
    Anti-Islam prejudice 49 37 54

    There is another factor: Muslim leaders themselves. They, like Bush, asserted over and over that Islam was a "religion of peace" and that "Islam means peace." There was a cognitive dissonance between these simple assertions and a continuous stream of suicide bombings in the name of Islam. Conservative scholars and religious leaders cited verse after verse from the Qur'an showing a violent streak. Though many were taken out of context (and were comparable to verses in the Old Testament of the Bible), they nonetheless were effective rebuttals, at minimum, to the claim that "Islam is a religion of peace."

    Meanwhile, polls came out during the winter showing that Muslims around the world believed Israel was partly to blame for the attacks; even a few respected American Muslim leaders echoed those statements.

    Muslim leaders maintained that Osama bin Laden was an aberration, a single twisted soul distorting Islam. But the reality is something more disturbing--that Islam is now being used as a justification for violence--not by a few, but by many. Though many Muslim leaders criticized the terrorists, few stated that the problems with Islam's misuse were dangerously widespread. As a result, Muslim leaders may have lost some of their credibility.

    Views of Islam
    Favorable Unfavorable
    All 42% 33
    Conservative 35 40
    Moderate 46 31
    Liberal 50 25
    Whites 41 33
    Blacks 46 35
    High school 38 35
    Some college 42 32
    College grad 48 31

    During a dinner in early October sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Judith Kipper chastised Muslims for not saying and doing more. "There is a need now for Muslims in America to stand up and be accountable," said Kipper, an ABC News consultant and director of the Middle East program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Keeping your head down isn't going to work anymore."

    American University professor Akbar Ahmed admitted as much: "For the first time in history, Muslim civilization is on a direct collision course with all the world religions."

    Ahmed said that at this point, he is aggravated that many Muslims won't acknowledge this. "After September 11, there was this mantra, 'We are peaceful, we are peaceful. After Muslims killed 3,000 people, it makes no sense to me.'"

    Though probably a mistake, the posture of Muslim leaders was understandable in one sense: American Muslims live in constant fear that antagonism would turn to harassment or violence against them. And indeed, since September 11, 2001, there have been numerous instances of violence against American Muslims, so a defensive posture is not at all surprising.

    But Ahmed, a former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom and an expert on Osama bin Laden, said Muslims must overcome that posture. "I feel a sense of sorrow and embarrassment," because, he said, "We are at the bottom of the pile."

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