Fifty-eight percent say Muslims face "a lot" of discrimination, according to an annual survey of religious attitudes by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life and the Pew Center for People and the Press, released Wednesday.
The groups surveyed 4,013 adults nationwide in August. This is the first year it asked about perceived discrimination of religious and social groups. Sixty-four percent of respondents said gays and lesbians face discrimination; 35 percent believe Jews do and 27 percent believe evangelical Christians face discrimination.
The survey sample composition means the majority of respondents – and of those who perceive discrimination against Muslims – are Christian. It's a finding that suggests Americans are tolerant pluralists, but Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says the full picture is more complicated.
In the same poll, he notes, two-thirds of people indicated that they see Islam and their own beliefs as quite different.
This bothers Kareem Shora, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). "It tells me that there's still that mentality out there ... [an] 'us versus them' approach." Meanwhile, he says, "the religion itself is established on the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Virgin Mary is actually mentioned more often in the Koran than she is in the New Testament."
Negative perceptions persist
The Pew survey also showed that 38 percent of Americans believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions, compared with 45 percent who don't. That's down from two years ago but still higher than it was in 2002, when 25 percent of Americans held this view.
This data suggests what ADC research has also found: That negative perceptions of Muslims didn't harden in the wake of September 11, but some time after. In fact, observers say, there was an outpouring of concern for Muslim-Americans in the months following the attacks.
"As ugly as some people got with hate crimes ... a lot of other people reached out to their neighbors and their friends and stood up for them," says Alia Malek, author of the forthcoming "A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Stories, American Roots." Ms. Malek, who was an attorney with the Department of Justice on 9/11, says the government initially reached out to Arab-Americans and Muslims.
"That soured pretty fast," she says, with new policies including regulations requiring men from 25 Arab countries to register with the US government, regardless of immigration status, wiretapping telephone lines and 'voluntary' interviews with Federal Bureau of Investigation officials at Arab-American homes. Some of these came with the Patriot Act of 2002, while others were implemented as early as November 2001.
When views hardened
Public perception of Muslims turned negative as these policies grew, says Anny Balakian, author of "Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond." The idea that Muslims "don't belong here" pre-dates 9/11, Ms. Balakian says. "The problem is that the government initiatives were really lethal."
Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, agrees. "If you have raids in your mosques and it's located in a community that's very diverse – these don't help your neighbors who are non-Arab or non-Muslim see you as a community they can trust, feel safe around, or feel comfortable with."
The image of violent Islam, in particular, is fed by current events in the media, says Ms. Sarsour.
"You have the war in Afghanistan, you have Pakistan, you have this war in Iraq and all these American soldiers are dying – and then you have the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," she notes. "These are what people think about think about when they think of the Muslim world."
'Muslim' and 'Arab' may be interchangeable in the minds of many Americans – despite the fact that, as Malek points out, many Arabs in the US are Christian while the majority of Muslims here are African-Americans.
How Muslims feel
While Pew's new study found nearly 6 in10 adults feel Muslims face discrimination in America, a 2007 poll of Muslims revealed that 1 in 4 Muslims has, in fact, experienced discrimination. Even those who haven't may be affected by the stories of others' discrimination.
"Depending on where you are in the US and what communities you're trying to live with, you are being cautious and careful and trying to make sure you're being a good citizen," says Sarsour.
Talat Mangla, an accountant in Falls Church, Va., denies feeling discriminated against as a Muslim, but her awareness of the possibility has, at times, influenced her thinking.
"I started wearing a head scarf in college, and I don't think I've ever felt discrimination overtly because of that," says Ms. Mangla. "More than anything, I felt more self-conscious about it."
The recent Pew survey also found that Americans who know a Muslim, or who know the meaning of the words "Allah" or "Koran," are less likely to hold unfavorable views.
Of course, says Mangla.
"You know how everyone loves their congressman but hates Congress? It's almost the same for Muslims," she says. "People … might be afraid of Islam in totality, but when you think of Muslims you actually know and interact with, they don't scare you. They're not radically different."