Thursday, March 23, 2006

Evangelical Christians Most Distrustful of Muslims

by Jim Lobe
Inter Press Service
March 23, 2006

WASHINGTON - The analysis, much of which is based on findings of a major poll carried out last summer by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press, found that a strong plurality of 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that Islam "is more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers", while only about a third of mainline Protestants and Catholics accepted that view.

It also found that attitudes towards Muslim-Americans and Islam tended to be affected by four key factors -- education, age, knowledge of Islam and personal acquaintance with Muslims.

Non-Muslim citizens were significantly more likely to think favourably of both Muslims and Islam if they had a personal acquaintanceship with Muslim-Americans, had achieved a higher level of education, acquired some independent knowledge about Islam, and if they were younger.

Indeed, while only 40 percent of U.S. citizens aged 65 and older held favourable views of Muslim-Americans, 62 percent of citizens between the age of 18 and 29 said they were favourably inclined.

The analysis, which was presented at the International Conference on Faith and Service here, comes amid ongoing concerns that Pres. George W. Bush's "war on terror" may yet evolve into a "clash of civilisations" between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic world.

Indeed, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released two weeks ago found a growing proportion of citizens expressing unfavourable views of Islam, and a majority saying that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence.

The poll, which did not break down the religious loyalties of the respondents, found that nearly half -- 46 percent -- of respondents now hold negative views of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the immediate aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Pew study cited the Post-ABC poll as evidence that negative sentiment toward Islam appears to have risen sharply since last July.

In July, Pew found that 36 percent of respondents held unfavourable views of Islam. In the latest Post-ABC poll, which was taken amid growing controversy over approval of a Dubai-owned company to take over terminals at six major U.S. ports, 46 percent of respondents said their views of Islam were negative.

That was roughly the same percentage of respondents who said they had an unfavourable view of Muslims in a March 2001 poll -- six months before the 9/11 attacks. Two months after the attacks, however, the percentage of U.S. citizens who expressed favourable views of Muslim-Americans actually rose to 59 percent.

That rise, however, may reflect greater sensitivity to what is socially desirable and appropriate than to actual improvement in attitudes towards Muslims, according to Pew’s analysis, entitled "Prospects for Inter-Religious Understanding: Will Views Toward Muslims and Islam Follow Historical Trends?"

In that sense, the recent Post-ABC findings may suggest that non-Muslim Americans may consider it more socially acceptable to express anti-Muslim views now than they had after 9/11, or even as recently as last July.

The most salient finding of the study is the particular distrust of Islam by evangelical Protestants.

Less than one third of evangelical Protestants said they had a favourable view of Islam, significantly less than the 48 percent plurality of Catholics and 42 percent of mainline Protestants and "seculars", those who defined themselves as atheists or agnostics, who expressed positive views.

Asked whether, in their view, the Islamic religion does not encourage violence more than other major religions, only 31 percent of evangelicals agreed, while 57 percent of mainline Protestants, 54 percent of seculars, and 43 percent of Catholics took that view.

While evangelical Christians are far more inclined to hold anti-Islamic views than their mainstream Protestant, Catholic and secular counterparts, their views of Muslim-Americans, who make up roughly four percent of the national population, were found to be not much different from those held by the other three groups.

Majorities of evangelicals (52 percent), mainline Protestants (53 percent), and Catholics (61 percent) said they had favourable opinions of Muslim-Americans, while seculars (49 percent) were the least favourable.

Remarkably, Evangelicals and Muslim-Americans ranked roughly the same in favourability in the general population. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they had a favourable impression of Jews, and 73 percent said they had a favourable impression of Catholics.

By contrast, only 57 percent said their views of Evangelicals were favourable, just ahead of the 55 percent who expressed favourable opinions of Muslim-Americans. All the religious groups, however, scored much higher than "Atheists", of whom only 35 percent had favourable opinions.

Pew found that personal contact with Muslim-Americans often appeared to have a dramatic effect on respondents' views. Among those "who knew anyone who is Muslim", 74 percent said they had a favourable view, and only 12 percent said they had an unfavourable impression. Among those who said they didn’t know any Muslims, only 50 percent said their views were favourable.

Muslims are viewed more favourably by the general U.S. population than in several European countries -- notably Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands -- where the Muslim population is proportionately much larger, according to yet another poll carried out last spring by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

While 57 percent of U.S. respondents said their view of Muslims was favourable, a plurality of only 46 percent of Spanish respondents agreed, while a plurality of 47 percent of Germans and a majority of 51 percent of Dutch respondents said they had an unfavourable view.

In Britain, France, and Canada, on the other hand, the percentage of respondents who said they had a favourable view of Muslims ranged higher than in the U.S. -- from 60 percent in Canada to 72 percent in Britain.

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