Fear, Fairness and Fox News: The Forces Shaping How We Think About American Muslims

Americans harbor some real fears about religious extremism and its connection to violence. At the same time, Americans are guided by a fundamental sense of fairness.
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In a few weeks, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) will hold controversial Congressional hearings to investigate alleged extremism in American Muslim communities. Our recent poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, reveals three powerful forces shaping how the public thinks about these hearings and American Muslims: fear, fairness and Fox News.

First, the survey clearly shows Americans wrestling with fears about Islam and the American Muslim community. When Americans are initially asked about the upcoming hearings to investigate alleged extremism in American Muslim community, a majority (56 percent) say they are a good idea. And a plurality (46 percent) of the public say American Muslims have not done enough to combat extremism in their own communities.

These fears run strongly along partisan and religious lines. Seven-in-10 (71 percent) Republicans say the hearings are a good idea, compared to only 45 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 7-in-10 white evangelical Protestants say the hearings are a good idea, compared to only about half of white mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated.

There is also evidence that the partisan divides have gotten much larger over the last decade.
For example, in 2003, the partisan divide on attitudes towards Islam was 10 points: 44 percent of Democrats held a favorable view of Islam, compared to 34 percent of Republicans. By 2010, the partisan gap had doubled to 20 points: approximately 4-in-10 (41 percent) Democrats still held a favorable view of Islam, but the percentage of Republicans who held a favorable view of Islam had fallen precipitously to 21 percent (Pew Research Center, 2003-2010).

In addition to wrestling with some fears, however, Americans are animated by a fundamental sense of fairness on questions about the place of American Muslims in society. Importantly, more than 7-in-10 (72 percent) Americans agree that the hearings should not focus on the Muslim community alone, but should be broadened to focus on religious extremism wherever it is found. And support for this fair-minded approach is shared by both Republicans and Democrats and across religious lines.

Moreover, 62 percent of the public agrees with a belief that has been emphasized by both post-9/11 presidents: that Muslims are an important part of the American religious community. Americans are reluctant to exclude Muslims from the American family religious portrait.

Finally, the survey revealed a remarkable Fox News effect on attitudes about the upcoming hearings and American Muslims. Holding other characteristics constant (e.g., party affiliation, age, education, gender, etc), those who most trust Fox News to give accurate information on current events and politics are four times as likely as those who most trust other TV news sources to say the upcoming hearings are a good idea. Trust in Fox News was the strongest single independent predictor of views on this issue -- stronger than party affiliation, religious affiliation, education, or a range of other demographic factors.

The Fox News effect was evident even among generally conservative subgroups. Take for example the question of whether American Muslims want to establish Islamic or sharia law as the law of the land in U.S., an accusation that has been made by some conservative commentators, such as Sean Hannity on Fox News and the fear behind a successful 2010 ballot initiative in Oklahoma.

Only 23 percent of Americans hold this concern. But this question reveals a chasm between Fox News trusting Republicans and Fox News trusting evangelicals on the one hand, and their peers who trust other television news sources on the other. More than 4-in-10 (41 percent) Fox News-trusting Republicans and nearly half (49 percent) of Fox News-trusting white evangelical Protestants believe American Muslims want to establish sharia law in the U.S. In contrast, the attitudes of Republicans and white evangelical Protestants who trust other news sources are roughly comparable to the general population.

The basic pattern from the public opinion data is clear. Americans harbor some real fears about religious extremism and its connection to violence. At the same time, Americans are guided by a fundamental sense of fairness, and they want to look broadly at the problem of religious extremism wherever it exists rather than preemptively singling out the Muslim community.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones at the Washington Post's On Faith section. To read more from Dr. Jones, find his blog, "Faith in the Numbers," here.

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