WASHINGTON - While 10 years after the 9/11 Al- Qaeda attacks, most U.S. citizens say they respect diversity and the freedom of religion, they don't always apply those principles to Islam and immigrants, according to a survey released here Tuesday by two major think tanks.
The survey, entitled "What It Means to be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11" (.pdf), found that viewers of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News were significantly less tolerant and more distrustful of Muslims than the general public.
It also found that self-described sympathizers of the mainly Republican "Tea Party" were significantly more hostile to immigrants and their children, as well as any effort to legalize their status in the United States.
And both groups were much more likely to believe discrimination against whites in U.S. society has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, according to the survey, which was released by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRII).
The survey, which was based on telephone interviews conducted in English and Spanish with 2,450 adult respondents during the first half of August, also found that younger respondents - especially so- called "Millennials", age 18-29 - generally tended to think more favorably of minority groups, including Muslims, than older citizens, in part due to significantly more interaction in their daily lives with members of minorities.
A majority of seniors (52 percent), for example, believe that Islam "is at odds with American values", while a majority of Millennials (54 percent) disagree. And while 64 percent of Millennials believe immigrants strengthen U.S. society, 51 percent of seniors say they threaten traditional U.S. customs and values.
"The survey underscores that the country is in the midst of an argument it has had again and again over diversity and immigration, and that this debate has a strong partisan and ideological dimension, which it has not always had," said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings senior fellow and co-author of the report.
"The generational patterns – young people on the whole are more sympathetic than their elders to both immigration and diversity – suggest that over the long run, we will resolve these arguments, as we have in the past, in favor of inclusion. But in the short run, it will be a difficult and, at times, divisive debate," he said.
Indeed, the survey suggests that the United States is, if anything, more polarized, especially along partisan and generational lines, than it was on the eve of the 9/11 attacks which appear to have spurred a rise in both Islamophobia and hostility toward immigrants, especially among older respondents and self-described Republicans.
"Ten years after September 11, 2001, we seem far less united as a nation," according to the report. While "we remain an exceptionally open country…we are so divided across partisan, ideological and generational lines that resolving the inevitable tensions that arise in a pluralistic society may prove to be less of a challenge than settling our political differences over what pluralism implies, and what it requires of us."
The vast majority of citizens, according to the report, strongly affirm the principles of religious tolerance, with nearly nine in 10 respondents (88 percent) agreeing that the U.S. was founded on the idea of religious freedom for all, and 95 percent agreeing that "all religious books should be treated with respect even if we don't share the beliefs contained in them".
Yet 47 percent of respondents agreed with the proposition that the values of Islam were at odds with "American values", and only 48 percent disagreed.
The poll found significant differences on this question, however, between political and demographic groups.
While a majority of self-described Democrats, Independents, and those who most trust CNN and public television for their news disagreed with the proposition, about two-thirds of Republicans, Tea Party followers, and respondents who most trust Fox News as a news source said they believed Islamic values were indeed at odds with American values.
Similarly, while only 30 percent of all respondents (up from 23 percent last February) agreed with the notion that "American Muslims want to establish Shari'a law in the U.S." – a favorite theme of a key network of U.S. Islamophobes who lead a multi-state drive to outlaw Shari'a - 45 percent of all Republican respondents agreed, as did 54 percent of Tea Party sympathizers and 52 percent of Fox News viewers.
The Shari'a theme has been touted by the network of U.S. Islamophobes, whose leaders appear frequently on Fox News. It is thus not surprising that, in contrast to the majority of Fox viewers who believe that Muslims here want to establish Shari'a in the U.S. only about a quarter of respondents who relied more on the three broadcast news networks, CNN, and public television agree.
"Television news media …plays a powerful role in influencing views towards American Muslims," noted Daniel Cox, PRRI's director of research. "Americans who say they most trust Fox News are significantly more likely to hold negative views about Islam and American Muslims."
The survey also found a glaring double standard in the general public when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims. More than eight in 10 (83 percent) respondents said that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of their religion "are not really" Christians.
But when the same question was posed about Muslims and Islam, less than half (48 percent) said those committing violence aren't really Muslim.
The double standard, however, was significantly more pronounced among Republicans and Tea Party supporters (55 percent) than among Democrats (40 percent) and Independents (39 percent).
On immigration, a large majority (62 percent) said they favored a comprehensive approach to reform that combines enforcement of existing laws with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants over one that featured strict enforcement and deportation only (36 percent).
While nearly three in four Democrats and more than six in 10 Independents favored the first approach, Republicans were nearly evenly divided and nearly six in 10 Tea Party sympathizers favored the strict enforcement option.
A majority of respondents (53 percent) said they believe the immigrants are making U.S. society stronger, while 42 percent believe it threatens traditional the country's customs and values.
Here, too, the partisan differences were significant. While 62 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Independents saw immigration positively, 55 percent and 56 percent of Republicans and Tea Party sympathizers, respectively, said it threatened traditional values.
Nearly half (46 percent) of all respondents said they believe discrimination against whites has become as big a problem in the society as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Three in 10 blacks and Hispanics and a slight majority of whites agreed with that notion.
Six in 10 Republicans and Tea Party sympathizers, compared to only 36 percent of Democrats, also agreed.
But the biggest gap in perception was between respondents who most trusted public television and those who rely on Fox News, according to the Survey. Nearly seven in 10 Fox News viewers (68 percent) said they agreed that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as that against minorities, while less than one in four (23 percent) who favor public television agreed.