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How Is Islam Viewed in America Today?

August 24, 2010 at 5:56 PM EDT
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With several new polls illustrating a divide over American attitudes toward Islam, PBS stations sampled opinions across the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: Next: the roiling debate over how Muslims are perceived in America.

The streets surrounding Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan were given over to heated protests last weekend.

WOMAN: This is their way of saying, we have the power to be anywhere we want, even on the graveyard of America.

GWEN IFILL: At issue: a bitter and continuing debate over plans to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks away.

ALI AKRAM, New York: Racism and bigotry has found another face. Now it is against the Muslims.

GWEN IFILL: The New York debate, which has drawn national attention and even presidential comment, is not the only one of its kind being waged around the country this year. Another anti-mosque protest has been unfolding in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

WOMAN: You don’t want a mosque in Murfreesboro?

WOMAN: No. No, I don’t.

WOMAN: Why is that?

WOMAN: Because that’s where they gather to take over America.

GWEN IFILL: Several new polls have illustrated a profound divide when it comes to American attitudes toward Islam. This week, “TIME” magazine asks, is America Islamophobic? In its poll, 46 percent of Americans think Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Yet, 55 percent say they consider most U.S. Muslims to be patriotic Americans.

Asked to sample opinion for the “NewsHour,” PBS stations around the country came away with a wide range of perception and misperception. In San Antonio, Texas:

ABE REDDEKOPP, San Antonio, Texas: I feel that Islam has the image of wanting to conquer the world. They want to establish not only their religion, but the Sharia law and all that goes along with — with Islam. And I don’t think it is good for America. I don’t think it is good for the world.

STEPHEN RINEAIR, San Antonio, Texas: I do know that their ultimate goal, according to the Koran, is world domination of their religion. The difference between Christianity and Islam is that, in Christianity, Christ died for us; in Islam, you die for Allah.

GWEN IFILL: In Boise, Idaho:

KAREN ROSS, Boise, Idaho: I don’t see it as any more radical than any of the other faiths. You have fringe groups in every faith, whether it is Muslim, Mormon, Jew.

GWEN IFILL: In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:

WOMAN: I don’t — I’m aware of the homegrown terrorists, and it’s a frightening thing.

GWEN IFILL: In San Diego, California:

RICHARD WOODSON, San Diego, California: Well, I see they’re persecuted a lot because of what happened 9/11, you know? But I think they’re just like us, the same people.

WOMAN: Lots of other religious groups have extremists, too, and unless they come and attack us, we don’t pay any attention.

GWEN IFILL: And in Rochester, New York:

BENJAMIN ANDERSON, Rochester, New York: A lot of fanatics take it to the extremes. And that’s where you get the overall view that Islam is a bad religion, per se, but it’s not. It’s a religion just like any other, with the same tenets as any other religion.

GWEN IFILL: Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. There are 1,900 mosques across the country.

Just this afternoon, the Pew Research Center released a new poll, showing that more Americans view Islam unfavorably than favorably, a shift from only five years ago, when more Americans held favorable opinions.