By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 12:02 AM
For almost a decade, the annual commemoration of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been seen as a day of national unity and sober remembrance. This year, contentious issues of religious freedom and national identity threaten to color the ninth anniversary of those tragic events.
Controversies over calls to burn the Koran and an ongoing debate over a proposed mosque and Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York are drawing particular attention as the anniversary nears, sparking questions about how 9/11 became so politicized.
The reality is that, with rare exceptions, the meaning of those attacks has rarely been free of political overtones or debate. Common ground in the months after the attacks quickly gave way to partisan division over combating terrorism. What may be different this year is that earlier debates about who was "strong" in the fight against terrorism and who was not have been supplanted by questions about Islam and religious freedom.
Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Florida, wants to build a bonfire out of copies of the Koran on Saturday. That has brought condemnation across the spectrum. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has warned that images of Islam's holy book in flames could endanger the lives of U.S. forces. Both the White House and conservatives such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin have criticized Jones's plan.
But experts on public opinion say the controversy does not represent a significant new shift in attitudes. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said fresh signs of a backlash against Muslims are not showing up broadly in national surveys. "Attitudes are mixed and not as positive as they were eight years ago," he said, "but there's no sign of an upswing in anti-Muslim fervor."
Jones may epitomize the ease with which someone on the political fringe can draw attention and spark controversy. The debate over the proposed Islamic center represents more genuine divisions in the country over the limits of religious freedom and the sacred nature of the ground around where the World Trade Center once stood.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans oppose building the Islamic center near the former site of the twin towers. Four in five of those opposed say their opposition is strictly because of the location. But 14 percent of the opponents (or 9 percent of all Americans) say they would oppose building it anywhere in the country.
The Post-ABC News poll found that roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view. That is little changed over the past few years but is more negative than eight years ago. In October 2002, 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam and 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.
About a third of the country now believes that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, while 54 percent see the religion as peaceful. The percentage seeing it as peaceful has varied little over the past nine years, but the percentage saying they believe it encourages violence is about double what it was in 2002.
Attitudes toward the project in Lower Manhattan are closely related to general perceptions about Islam. Those who hold favorable views toward Islam and see it as a generally peaceful religion are far more likely than others to say the building should move forward.
This year's controversies may be different in tone and content from those of the past, but the idea that 9/11 has always been a unifying moment is overdrawn. For a time, the attacks sparked a change in the national mood, a coming together across party lines. That quickly gave way to a return to partisan politics - with terrorism at the center of a harsh and sometimes raw debate.
That debate changed American politics, throwing Democrats on the defensive. Republicans under Bush effectively used terrorism to their advantage in the midterm election of 2002. In 2004, Republicans staged their national convention in New York as a way to highlight Bush's actions immediately after the attacks. That convention came at a time when divisions over the Iraq war were less stark than they became a year later.
What allowed the partisan debates to flourish was that the country quickly snapped back to its pre-9/11 attitudes, though memories of the attacks remained vivid longer in the East Coast corridor most directly affected by them.
Depending on one's views, that was a testament either to the resilience of Americans to absorb the worst and keep going or a depressing indicator that the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in history could be so easily set aside in the face of partisan politics.
The events themselves appear to have receded further and further in the public's consciousness, even as the country again prepares to mark their anniversary. Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who has tracked attitudes on the attacks closely, said 9/11 "is becoming a distant historical marker," akin to Veterans Day.
The new Post-ABC News poll highlights just how much 9/11 has receded. Just 14 percent of Americans now say they think about what happened on 9/11 every day, down from 23 percent four years ago and 40 percent the year after the attacks.
Nor is terrorism as divisive an issue as it once was. President Obama's approval ratings for his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are higher than his marks for domestic issues, thanks in part to greater Republican support in those areas than on the economy or the deficit.
Under Obama, a significantly smaller percentage of the population says it feels safer today than it did before Sept. 11, 2001: 48 percent, compared with 62 percent two years ago. The principal reason is a dramatic change among Republicans and a less significant change among independents. Two years ago, when Bush was still in office, 82 percent of Republicans said they felt safer than before 9/11; now 49 percent say that.
With the change from Bush to Obama, Republicans and Democrats have significantly shifted their responses to the question of how much confidence they have in government to prevent another terrorist attack. Republican confidence has dropped from 73 to 41 percent; Democratic confidence has risen from 35 percent to 53 percent.
Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.