There is limited knowledge of Muslims and Islam among non-Muslims in Western nations.

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Muslims & Islam — Lesson 4

How are Muslims viewed in the West?

Non-Muslims in the United States and Western Europe generally express accepting attitudes toward the growing numbers of Muslims in their societies. But these feelings are accompanied by varying levels of unease and uncertainty about how Islam fits into Western cultures. In many cases, people may be wary of what is unfamiliar: Our surveys consistently find that those who personally know a Muslim feel more warmly toward Muslims and Islam. But it is also possible that people who have positive attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are more likely to seek out these personal connections.

Americans have limited knowledge of Islam and lukewarm feelings toward Muslims.

Feelings toward religious groups

Fewer than half of non-Muslim U.S. adults (46%) say they personally know a Muslim, and very few (7%) say they know “a lot” about Islam. But most do know at least one or two basic facts about the religion. In our religious knowledge survey, about six-in-ten correctly identified Ramadan as an Islamic holy month, and a similar share picked Mecca as the holiest city in Islam. Fewer Americans are aware of the size of the U.S. Muslim population: About a quarter know that Muslims make up less than 5% of U.S. adults. And a similarly small share know Islam is the primary religion in Indonesia.

The survey also asked Americans to rate their general feelings about Muslims and several other religious groups on a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being the coldest, most negative feelings and 100 being the most positive. On average, Muslims received a rating of 49 – identical to the rating given to atheists and lower than the ratings received by other groups. For example, Jews received an average rating of 63, Catholics were rated at 60 and Hindus were rated at 55.

Americans are divided on how Islam fits in American society.

Are Muslims part of mainstream society

Americans’ lukewarm feelings toward Muslims also are apparent in several other ways. Half say they do not think of Islam as part of mainstream American society, while fewer (43%) say Islam is mainstream in America. They also are split when it comes to Islam’s relationship with democracy: 44% think there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy, while 46% say there is not.

In addition, about four-in-ten U.S. adults say the Islamic religion is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers, while roughly a third think there is at least a “fair amount” of extremism among Muslims living in the U.S., and a quarter believe at least half of U.S. Muslims are anti-American.

At the same time, many Americans also recognize challenges that U.S. Muslims face. A slim majority of U.S. adults think there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the United States today, and about half say that media coverage of Muslims and Islam is generally unfair.

Republicans are much more negative toward Muslims and Islam than Democrats are.

Rep Dem views of Muslims

Partisans are at odds in their views of Muslims and Islam. While three-quarters of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party say that Muslims face a lot of discrimination in American society, just one-third of Republicans agree. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP say that Islam is not part of mainstream American society and that there is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy; far fewer Democrats share these views.

Republicans also are at least twice as likely as Democrats to link Islam with violence or anti-Americanism in various ways, including by saying that Islam encourages violence more than other religions (72% vs. 28%), that there is a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of extremism among U.S. Muslims (56% vs. 22%), and that half of U.S. Muslims or more are anti-American (34% vs. 17%). In general, some of these partisan gaps have been growing in recent years, with Republicans becoming more skeptical toward Muslims and Democrats growing more accepting.

In Europe, acceptance of Muslims is highest in the West.

Acceptance of Muslims in Europe

We also have asked people in dozens of European countries about Muslims and Islam, finding varying degrees of acceptance toward Muslims in their societies, and, in general, a sharp divide between Western Europe (where there is greater acceptance of Muslims as both family members and neighbors) and Central and Eastern Europe (where there is less).

Levels of acceptance are highest in the Netherlands – where 88% of Dutch adults say they would be willing to accept Muslims as members of their family – as well as the Scandinavian countries of Norway (82%), Denmark (81%) and Sweden (80%). (The comparable figure in the U.S. is 79%.) The numbers are far lower in Central and Eastern Europe: Just 7% of people polled in Armenia, 12% in the Czech Republic and 16% in Belarus would welcome Muslims as family members.

Stereotypes of Muslims are largely rejected in Western Europe, but there are undercurrents of discomfort.

Following a surge of Muslim immigration to the region, our 2017 survey of 15 countries in Western Europe asked some additional questions to gauge non-Muslims’ feelings toward Muslims and Islam. While majorities in most countries say they know “not much” or “nothing at all” about the Islamic religion, most people in Western Europe say they do personally know someone who is Muslim. In France, for example, about eight-in-ten adults say they know a Muslim.

The survey asked people if they agree or disagree with two strongly worded statements intended to gauge levels of anti-Muslim sentiment. Most Western Europeans disagree with the idea that, “In their hearts, Muslims want to impose their religious law on everyone else” in their country, as well as the notion that, “Due to the number of Muslims here, I feel like a stranger in my own country.” At the same time, a third or more in several countries (Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands) do believe that Muslims want to impose religious law on others, and at least one-in-five respondents across most of the region say the Muslim presence in their country has made them feel like a stranger. In Belgium, more than a third say this.

Even larger shares across the region say that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with their country’s culture and values, including a majority of the public in Finland (62%) and about half in Italy and Austria. And there is a strong consensus in Western Europe in favor of restrictions on Muslim women’s religious clothing, particularly support for making face coverings illegal – in many cases reflecting laws that are already in effect.

In both Europe and the U.S., those who know a Muslim feel warmer toward Muslims.

One consistent pattern we found across both Western Europe and the United States is that familiarity with Muslims accompanies warmer feelings toward Muslims and Islam. For example, non-Muslim Western Europeans who personally know a Muslim are far less likely to say that Muslims want to impose religious law on others: 85% of British adults who know a Muslim disagree with this idea, compared with 48% of those who do not personally know someone who is Muslim.

In the U.S., people who know a Muslim give Muslims warmer ratings on the feeling thermometer (53 on average), while all others rate Muslims at a cooler average of 45.

Last updated January 2020.


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