DALLAS The percentage of Americans who believe Islam encourages violence has declined in recent years but remains far above where it was in 2002, while very basic knowledge about the faith has shown modest increases, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The poll's findings, released ahead of the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, come against the backdrop of President Barack Obama's attempts to reach out to the Islamic world and eroding public support for the war in Muslim Afghanistan as U.S. combat deaths there rise to record levels.
Most Americans also believe Muslims are discriminated against, a finding that suggests empathy for a community whose leaders often say they are regarded with suspicion and hostility.
The nationwide survey of over 4,000 adults in August found that 58 percent of Americans believe Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the United States. By contrast the same numbers for atheists and Mormons are 26 and 24 percent respectively.
"The fact that Americans believe Muslims face a lot of discrimination is a substantial finding ... It is sort of like the public looking at itself in the mirror and there is some empathy for a group facing discrimination," said Michael Dimock, an associate director at the Pew Research Center.
VIEWS LINKED TO FAITH, POLITICS
As a group, only gays and lesbians were seen worse off than Muslims in this regard with 64 percent saying they faced a lot of discrimination.
Thirty-eight percent of those polled believed Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence, down from the 45 percent who held this view two years earlier.
But that number has fluctuated over the years and in 2002, when it was first asked the year after the September 11 attacks, only 25 percent of the U.S. public said they thought Islam encouraged more violence than other faiths.
Former President George W. Bush made very public statements saying Islam was not a faith of violence in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington.
American views of Islam are closely linked to partisan affiliation or personal faith.
One of the sharpest declines was among conservative Republicans but a majority of this group or 55 percent still regarded Islam as violent versus 68 percent two years ago.
Among self-identified liberal Democrats only 25 percent held this view, virtually unchanged from August of 2007.
White evangelical Protestants, who remain a key base for the Republican Party, are "significantly more likely than other religious groups to say Islam is inclined toward violence, with more than half (53 percent) taking this view," Pew said.
"Within other religious groups, fewer than four-in-ten people express this opinion (39 percent of white mainline Protestants, 38 percent of white Catholics, 33 percent of the religiously unaffiliated and 30 percent of black Protestants.)"
Over the past several years, Pew has found that Americans' knowledge of the most basic facts about Islam has increased modestly though many remain in the dark about the faith.
"A slim majority of Americans know the Muslim name for God is Allah, and a similar number can correctly name the Koran as the Islamic sacred text. Overall, 41 percent of the public is able to answer both questions correctly," Pew said. In 2002 only 33 percent responded to both questions correctly.
But 36 percent of Americans remain "unfamiliar with either term," according to Pew.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)