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Americans Support Goal of Improved Relations With Muslim World

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By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 6, 2009

Most Americans think President Obama's pledge to "seek a new way forward" with the Muslim world is an important goal, even as nearly half hold negative views about Islam and a sizable number say that even mainstream adherents to the religion encourage violence against non-Muslims, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

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There is still a broad lack of familiarity with the world's second-largest religion -- 55 percent of those polled said they are without a basic understanding of the teachings and beliefs of Islam, and most said they do not know anyone who is Muslim. While awareness has increased in recent years, underlying views have not improved.

About half, 48 percent, said they have an unfavorable view of Islam, the highest in polls since late 2001. Nearly three in 10, or 29 percent, said they see mainstream Islam as advocating violence against non-Muslims; although more, 58 percent, said it is a peaceful religion.

Muslims make up about 1 percent of all U.S. adults.

Majorities of Americans with sympathetic and unsympathetic views about Islam said it is important for the president to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, with those holding more positive views much more likely to call those moves "very important." In his inaugural address, Obama extended an offer to leaders of unfriendly Muslim nations that the United States "will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Overall, nearly two-thirds said Obama, who arrived yesterday in Ankara, Turkey, will handle the diplomatic mission "about right." Nearly a quarter, though, said he will probably "go too far." Nine percent said it is more likely he will not go far enough.

Nearly half of Republicans said Obama is apt to overreach in his efforts to advance U.S. relations, while large majorities of Democrats and independents said they think he will walk the right line.

Republicans are also more apt than others to hold negative attitudes toward Islam, with six in 10 having unfavorable views, compared with about four in 10 for Democrats and independents. Among conservative Republicans, 65 percent view Islam unfavorably; liberal Democrats, in contrast, are 60 percent positive.

This partisan divide is also apparent on the question of whether mainstream Islam encourages hostility toward non-Muslims, with Republicans about twice as likely as Democrats to say it does. Nearly half of conservative Republicans see centrist Islam as a promoter of violence.

Perceptions of Islam as a peaceful faith are the highest among non-religious Americans, with about two-thirds holding that view. Among Catholics, 60 percent see mainstream Islam as a peaceful faith; it is 55 percent among all Protestants, but drops to 48 percent among white evangelical Protestants.

There are deep divisions in perceptions of Islam between younger and older Americans as well: More than six in 10 younger than 65 said Islam is a peaceful religion, but that drops to 39 percent among seniors.

As in previous surveys, unfamiliarity breeds skepticism: 53 percent of those who profess an understanding of some Islamic teachings view the religion favorably, compared with 31 percent of those who said they do not have that fluency. Those who have such a background are also significantly more likely to see the religion as peaceful. Similar patterns exist for those who know a Muslim. And views of Islam are more positive among those with more formal education.

In a Pew poll in March, 11 percent of Americans mistakenly identified Obama as a Muslim, about the same proportion to do so during the presidential campaign.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone March 26-29 among a national random sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.


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