January 28, 2005

C.U. Study Tests Americans' Views of Muslim Countries

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Prof. James Shanahan, communication, completed a study on views toward Islam and Muslim-Americans last December. Shanahan collaborated with Erik Nisbet grad, a senior research associate with the Survey Research Institute, to conduct a survey questioning 715 respondents across the nation about their views on civil liberties, terrorism, U.S. foreign policy, and anti-Americanism.

The study attempted to find how much fears of terrorism, religiosity and news media viewing correlated to perceptions of Islamic countries, Muslim-Americans and restrictions on their civil liberties. The study also included political ideology as an influential factor.

Almost half of the respondents believed that the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans should be restricted in some form. Roughly 22 percent of respondents said that the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats if they are Muslim or of Middle Eastern heritage. Approximately 26 percent believed that mosques should be monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies, and 27 percent of those surveyed said that all Muslim-Americans should have to register their location with the federal government. Overall, 44 percent of respondents believed that some form of restrictions on civil liberties of Muslim-Americans are necessary.

The study found a direct relationship between religiosity (specifically Christian religiosity) and negative perceptions of Islam and Islamic countries. While 65 percent of respondents who considered themselves to be highly religious believed that Islam encouraged violence, only 42 percent of those who did not consider themselves highly religious thought so. Moreover, highly religious respondents were more likely to describe Islamic countries as violent, fanatical and dangerous than respondents who did not consider themselves highly religious.

The survey also showed that respondents who viewed more news media were more likely to be fearful of a terrorist attack and more likely to support some form of restriction on the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans. The study showed a specific channel effect for Fox News Channel — respondents who viewed more Fox News media were more likely to support civil liberty restrictions on Muslim-Americans than those who viewed other forms of news media.

“We have had a general interest in media and civil liberties since after 9/11. We are interested in general in how media messages inform people’s attitudes and beliefs. Beliefs about the War on Terror have been part of that research recently,” said Prof. Shanahan.

Nisbet was motivated to do this type of research as a means of finding a practical solution to what he refers to as a perception gap between the United States and Islamic countries.

“You have Christians who are more religious driving away the gap, and Muslims who are also more religious driving away the gap. Our take is not that ‘we’re right and they’re wrong,’ our take is that there is a perception gap. How do we narrow it? How do we win the hearts and minds of Muslims when the gap is widening?” asked Nisbet.

Prof. Ronald Ostman, communication, and his Communication Industry Research class also contributed to the study by interviewing respondents. “At that time, everything was well underway to include a national survey as part of the student’s learning, making it the third year the course did such an ambitious research project,” said Ostman.

Archived article by Teah Colson
Sun Staff Writer