Muslims Seen As Facing Discrimination

Eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans think Muslims face more discrimination than any other religious group. That's according to a new survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew Forum Senior Researcher Greg Smith and Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, discuss the new findings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Friday Faith Matters conversation. In a few minutes we'll speak with the U.S. Army's first Buddhist Chaplain. He's headed overseas. And he took a few minutes to talk with us about what he does and how he sees his role?

But first, we begin with new research on how Americans view Islam. Today, it's been eight years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many Americans knew little about Islam before the attacks and events help (unintelligible) negative perceptions, but what about now?

Joining me to talk about this is Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a lead author of the 2009 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey. He's with us from his office here in Washington, D.C. And here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio is Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. GREG SMITH (Senior Researcher, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): Thanks for having me.

Mr. IBRAHIM HOOPER (National Communications Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): Thank you.

MARTIN: Greg Smith, what are the key findings in your surveys? And Americans see Muslims as experiencing more discrimination than other major religious groups. The only other group people felt experienced more discrimination was gays and lesbians. How do you interpret this finding?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you're exactly right. We found about a six in 10 adults telling us that they think Muslims in the United States face a lot of discrimination today, that's many more than say the same thing about Jews, or Evangelical Christians, or atheists or Mormons. You know, it may reflect some of the findings from previous survey work that we've done where - when we talk with Muslims we find that this is a common concern and even not too infrequent experience of theirs.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think it means, Ibrahim Hooper, what do you think it means? Do you think…

Mr. HOOPER: Well, we began recording bias against the American-Muslim community after the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing, when Muslims were blamed for that and there was a backlash. And we've seen an upward trend in reporting of bias and hate crimes and various incidents every year since that. So, I think it's a reflection of reality.

MARTIN: Yeah, but - just because some people are experiencing reality, it doesn't mean that other people recognize that they are.

Mr. HOOPER: Well, I think it's becoming acknowledged that the American-Muslim community is targeted by bias and intolerance just within the month of Ramadan, we're fasting now. During the month of Ramadan, we've seen a number of incidents targeting Muslims around the country or those perceived to be Muslims. We had a cab driver in California called Taliban and beaten up by some customers and he was Sikh but he was perceived to be Muslim.

MARTIN: When did this happen?

Mr. HOOPER: This happened in California just a couple of weeks ago.

MARTIN: Couple of weeks ago. Greg Smith, you found that - speaking to your point about Taliban, and people associating Islam with negative behavior, you found that 38 percent of those surveyed thought Islam encouraged violence more than other religions. How does this compare to past years?

Mr. SMITH: Well, this actually represents a little bit of a decline in the degree to which people associate Islam with violence compared with just a couple of years ago.

In 2007, we found 45 percent of people saying Islam encourages violence more than other faiths. So, views on this measure have actually improved a little bit in the last couple of years.

MARTIN: So, Ibrahim Hooper, how do you interpret this? As you heard Greg, a plurality says, 45 percent say Islam is no more likely than other faiths to encourage violence, 38 percent say Islam does encourage violence. So, how do you interpret…

Mr. HOOPER: Well, I'm very encouraged…

MARTIN:…is this is a glass half full or half empty question for you?

Mr. HOOPER: I'm very encouraged by the fact that about half of Americans actually know a Muslim personally. Our research has shown and it's reflected in this study too that when knowledge about Islam goes up and familiarity with ordinary Muslims is there, prejudice goes down. So, this tracks exactly with what we've been seeing over the years.

MARTIN: Greg, do you think that's true?

Mr. SMITH: It's certainly consistent with these data. One of the things I find interesting is that by a variety of measures, Americans are a little bit more familiar and knowledgeable about Islam compared with 2001, 2002.

You know, about half of people say they know a Muslim, about four in 10 people are able to name the Quran and Allah as key terms of the Islamic faith. And it's certainly true that higher levels of familiarity with Muslims and Islam are associated with more positive views.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new survey that describes how Americans view Islam. And I'm joined by Greg Lewis(ph) from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which conducted the survey, and Ibrahim Hooper from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Greg just one more question on that point. You mentioned that with more, I think you mentioned, with more education tends to come more familiarity with Islam and with persons of - who practice the Muslim faith. Do you have any more detail on who has a connection with a person of the Muslim faith? Are there any other - any other attributes that you can point to? Is it younger people, for example, people in cities? Anything you know?

Mr. SMITH: I think the key ones are education, as you mentioned. Those with the highest levels of education are most likely to know things about Islam. At the same time, the other group that stands out is younger people. Younger people are more familiar with Islam, particularly compared with the oldest American, those over the age of 65.

MARTIN: Ibrahim Hooper, your organization has gone to great lengths to try to familiarize Americans with Islam, to change perceptions, negative perceptions.

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just recently, we talked to your executive director about an effort to make the Quran more accessible…

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah.

MARTIN:…and understood. Do you think you're making headway?

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah, I think we are making headway with the majority of Americans, people of goodwill all around the country. One problem is that minority of people that we consistently see as being actively hostile to Islam and Muslims. And it's reflected in this study and our previous studies, I would say, it's usually about 20 percent of the population.

You say, well, that's a small minority, but you have more than 300 million people, that's a lot of people who have an active hostility to our faith and they're a very vocal minority. We see it on hate sites on the Internet, we see it on talk radio shows, we see it on letters to the editor attacking the faith of Islam. So, this is a great concern because this vocal minority can have an influence on a lot of people.

MARTIN: What do you think makes a difference? Do you have any sense of what is most…

Mr. HOOPER: Education. When people, again, have knowledge and when they're familiar with Islam and know Muslims, that makes a difference. That's why we're distributing Qurans to 100,000 American policymakers and opinion leaders around the country.

MARTIN: Greg Smith, based on your research, I mean, you've been in this field a long time, are Americans becoming more or less aware and more or less tolerant of religion, other religions, other than the ones that we traditionally associate with the United States on the whole or overall? As I mentioned, in a couple of minutes we're going to speak to the first chaplain in the U.S. Army who follows the Buddhist faith and his is a very interesting story. So, what do you think?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I do think that if we look over the long term, we do see the views of a variety of groups like Jews and Catholics and others have improved over time. This is also consistent with other research that we've done that shows that people have respect for other religions in the sense that most people in the United States say that there are multiple religions that have validity and that can lead to eternal life for instance.

At the same time, this is not to suggest that people don't see their own faiths as distinctive. In fact, in this most recent poll, we found that majorities of people say that Islam along with Mormonism, and Hinduism, and Buddhism, really are more different rather than similar to their own faiths.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, it's interesting, where does - how do you interpret that?

Mr. SMITH: I interpret it to mean that people do see their own faiths as distinctive. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing or to express a negative view to see that other faiths are different, but I do think that it suggests that people really see important points of distinction.

MARTIN: And Ibrahim?

Mr. HOOPER: And what we need to do is show that Islam is an indigenous American faith. It's not a foreign faith. I mean, so many times I do media relations. I'll call the city desk of a newspaper and say who I'm with and they'll say, oh, yes, I'll transfer you to the foreign desk. Well, no, it's not a foreign religion. It's an American religion.

MARTIN: It's a local call.

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Ibrahim Hooper is national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Greg Smith is senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He joined us from his office in Washington. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. HOOPER: Thank you.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: You can learn more about how Americans view religions and find the report that we've just been talking about from the Pew Forum by just going to the new npr.org site, click on TELL ME MORE.

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