A new Gallup poll finds a slight majority of 52 percent saying it is appropriate to hold congressional hearings on the role of radical Islam among American Muslims. Those hearings, led Thursday by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), have been controversial for singling out members of this community

Public sentiment toward Islam has become more negative in recent years in Post-ABC News polls. A September survey found more people held an unfavorable than favorable view of Islam by 49 to 37 percent. That is a reversal from an October 2002 poll in which 47 percent were favorable vs. 39 percent unfavorable.

On the key question of the nature of the religion, a 54 percent majority said Islam is a religion of peace. But 31 percent said mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, a consistent level over the past eight years. That is still a significant portion of the country seeing Islam as potentially violent and is about double what it was in 2002 when first asked.

 An important dividing line in sentiments toward Islam is whether or not people understand the religion and whether or not people personally know a Muslim. Those with more knowledge are much more sympathetic to the religion. Among those who know a Muslim or say they understand it, two-thirds call it a religion of peace.

 While sentiment is not monolithic, significant portions of the public may see important reasons for these hearings. The new Gallup poll found 36 percent saying that Muslims living in the United States are “too extreme in their religious beliefs” and 28 percent saying that Muslims in America are “sympathetic to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.” These sentiments have declined since 2006 when 44 percent said Muslims are “too extreme” and 34 percent said they were sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

LIVE COVERAGE: Rep. Peter King’s hearing