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Peter King hearing shows ‘sharply polarized’ attitudes toward Islam

Public attitudes towards American Muslims – highlighted by the House hearing this week led by Rep.

Public attitudes towards American Muslims – highlighted by the House hearing this week led by Rep. Peter King (R) of New York – are deeply divided and sharply defined, according to new opinion polls.

In general, Americans who are older, conservative in their religion and politics, and Republican tend to be wary of Muslims in this country. In particular, most of those who identify with the tea party movement say they believe that Islam is more likely to promote violence than other religions.

By contrast, Americans who are younger, more liberal in their religion and politics, and Democrat, are less likely to be concerned that American Muslims are a threat to national or personal security.

The first group generally supports Representative King’s Homeland Security Committee hearing with its controversial title: “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” The second group generally disagrees with King’s effort – some going as far as to liken it to a new era of McCarthyism.

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A new Gallup poll finds that, when averaged together, about half of all Americans approve of hearings being held on radical Islam in the US, but that breaks down along party lines: 69 percent of Republicans and just 40 percent of Democrats support the idea of the hearings. Republicans also are much more inclined than Democrats to believe that Muslims in the US are “too extreme in their religious beliefs” (50 percent and 25 percent, respectively) and “sympathetic to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization” (38 percent and 24 percent).

Americans ‘sharply polarized’

“The large partisan gulf in some of these attitudes … underscores the sharply polarized way in which Republicans and Democrats view the world today – even in their subjective characterizations of religious groups,” writes Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport in an analysis of the poll. “Less than half of Republicans believe that Muslims in the US are supportive of the United States, while a clear majority of Democrats do. And, most relevant to the current debate, while Republicans strongly support the appropriateness of the King hearings, less than half of Democrats agree.”

Another new national survey – by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press – finds the American public evenly split – 40 percent agree, 42 percent disagree – on whether “the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence.”

As with the Gallup poll, Pew finds important distinctions among those surveyed.

While 58 percent of those younger than 30 say Islam does not encourage violence more than other religions, a plurality of those 50 and older (45 percent) says it does. White, evangelical Protestants are more likely to see Islam as potentially violent (60 percent) than do mainline Protestants (42 percent) or Roman Catholics (39 percent).

Tea partyers associate Islam with violence

“Political and ideological divisions are even wider,” reports Pew. By roughly 3 to 1 (66 percent to 21 percent), conservative Republicans say Islam encourages violence more than other religions. The numbers are virtually reversed for liberal Democrats. Of those who agree with the tea party movement, two-thirds say Islam is more associated with violence.

Political inclinations aside, public worries about Muslims in the US have grown in recent years, as threats of terrorist attacks tied to radical Islam have increased and some attacks (such as the Fort Hood shootings) have succeeded.

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In March 2002 – six months after the massive attacks of 9/11 – just 25 percent of those surveyed by Pew saw Islam as more likely to encourage violence while twice as many (51 percent) disagreed.

While the country was still reeling from the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon that had killed thousands, then-President Bush, as well as other political and religious leaders, stressed that Islam itself – and certainly the great majority of American Muslims – should not be blamed for terrorism.

It was a point strongly made by FBI Director Robert Mueller in his 2008 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

Today, after nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the arrest of some American Muslims charged with plotting attacks, and concerns about Muslim Brotherhood ties to political turmoil in several Arab countries, the percentage of the US public associating Islam with violence has gone from 25 percent to 40 percent.