Why are Americans so suspicious of Muslims – and should they be?

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba during their final circling at the Grand Mosque during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.Reuters

A LifeWay survey has found that many Americans see Islam as a threat to religious freedom, both at internationally and at home.

Almost as many – 39 per cent – see it as a domestic threat as see it as a global threat (40 per cent), the survey shows.

Among evangelical Christians, the figures rise considerably: the majority of evangelicals see Islam as a danger to religious freedom both domestically (55 per cent) and globally (53 per cent). Only 31 per cent of Catholics think Islam is a danger in America, and 38 per cent globally. For all Protestants the figure is 48 per cent for both US and global risks; for all Christians, 45 per cent say Islam is a threat to religious liberty internationally and 43 per cent say it is a threat to religious freedom in America.

LifeWay found differences along geographic lines as well, with southerners more likely to view Islam as a risk to religious freedom than those in the West or Northeast.

There are a lot of figures there. What's the take-home?

Lots of Americans think Islam is a threat to religious freedom at home and abroad, but still a minority except among evangelicals, most of whom think it's a threat.

That is interesting. How many Muslims are there in America?

That's interesting too. An Ipsos Mori poll in 2014 found that Americans believed that their population was around 15 per cent Muslim, so 47.4 million. In fact it's about 0.8 per cent, about 2.6 million.

It's rather hard to see how they could be a threat to religious liberty there, then?

Indeed: the poll is entitled "Perils of Perception". However, the widespread fear that Islam is on the march in America has led to a rash of legislation, with eight states having banned judges from considering sharia law when making their decisions.

And what evidence is there that this is necessary?

There's very little. However, a Washington think-tank produced a 2011 report entitled Shariah: The Threat to America, which was backed by some Republican politicians. During the lead-up to Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign 2012, he described sharia law as a "mortal threat" and called for its ban throughout America.

So if there aren't many Muslims in America and they aren't trying to introduce sharia law, why should Americans believe they're such a threat?

There are a number of reasons. One is the relentless flow of stories from overseas about the atrocities committed by Islamic State and, to a far lesser extent, Boko Haram. Another is the heightened awareness of terrorist danger and its association with Islamism. (In fact far more Americans are killed by home-grown right-wing extremists than by jihadists – 48 since September 11, 2001, including the nine in Charleston last week, as opposed to 26 by Islamists.) And, of course, the Twin Towers still cast a long shadow. However, it's not just the facts, but the perceptions around them that shapes people's opinions. So it's necessary to run stories about Islamist atrocities, but the trouble is that people think all Muslims are like that, or that there's something about Islam which is fundamentally prone to that sort of thing.

But why such a difference between Catholics and evangelicals?

Evangelicals tend to consume media that promotes a particular view of Islam. Fox News, for instance, was forced into an amusingly embarrassing climbdown when one of its contributors, terrorism "expert" Steven Emerson, said that Birmingham was a "totally Muslim city" and that gangs of religious police beat people up in parts of London for not wearing Islamic dress. A Public Religion Research Institute survey in 2011 found "a significant correlation between trust in Fox News and negative attitudes about Muslims": "Americans who most trust Fox News are more likely to believe that Muslims want to establish Shari'a law, have not done enough to oppose extremism, and believe investigating Muslim extremism is a good idea."

Furthermore, prominent evangelicals such as Franklin Graham have been vociferous in their condemnation of Islam. Graham has posted several condemnations of Islam on his Facebook page. In a 2014 article for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association he refers to the "bloody flag of Islam", denies that it is a peaceful religion and says that it is "guided and characterised by treacherous deceit". He says that "For Muslims, peace comes only through submission to Islam."

Graham is not alone. An article by Richard Cimino, No God in Common: American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11, argues that "Most of the post-9/11 literature draws sharper boundaries between Islam and Christianity and asserts that Islam, is an essentially violent religion." He identifies prophetic writing identifying Islam as the protagonist in end-time teachings and charismatic literature referring to "spiritual warfare" against Islam. Greater pluralism in American society "can strain interfaith relations", but also functions to "strengthen evangelical Protestant identity": in other words, evangelicals circle the wagons against a perceived enemy.

But hold on: Muslims really are doing dreadful things.

Some Muslims, yes, but that's not the point: this is about religious liberty. There is no evidence that Muslims are a threat to it in the US.

What about elsewhere in the world?

In areas under threat from Islamic State and Boko Haram, clearly. In other Muslim countries, too – like Malaysia, where Christians have been banned from using the word 'Allah' for God – Christians can find difficult to practise their faith freely. It is worth saying, however, that minority religions often find life difficult under majority religious rule. There are serious questions about the position of Christians in India under Hinduism and Sri Lanka under Buddhism, for instance.

So Franklin Graham does have a case, then?

Not really, though the answer is a little more complicated than that. He's quite wrong to say that Muslims don't condemn the violence of Islamic State. Far more of them suffer from it than Christians, after all. He's also wrong to argue that Islam is inevitably a religion of violence and conquest. At some points in its history it has been, at others not. He's also wrong to say that it is "guided and characterised by treacherous deceit"; that's just insulting.

I thought you said it was a little more complicated than that?

I'm getting to it. In some countries Islam is the majority religion and others are tolerated to different extents. A 2014 paper entitled Assessing variation in tolerance in 23 Muslim-majority and Western countries found that people living in Muslim-majority countries are less tolerant than those living in Western countries, even after controlling for variations in income and development. However, the paper suggests that it is Islamic political regimes rather than the religion itself that are responsible for this.

So there's a bit of an issue with Islam, still?

No, not with Islam. It isn't possible to argue that "Islam" is a violent or intolerant religion, as though it is just one thing, divorced from the complicated historical, political, economic and social experiences that go to make up the world-views of Muslims in different places. However, neither is it right to argue that "Islam is a religion of peace", as many involved in inter-faith dialogue would do – often in response to the extreme statements of people like Franklin Graham. A widely-circulated Atlantic article by Graeme Wood argues that ISIS can find very good justifications for its actions within a particular tradition of Muslim thought; the critique, he says, has to come from within Islam, not from outside it. There are some pretty unpleasant parts of the Bible, too; it's a question of learning to read them in a way that reflects the goodness of God rather than the worst of human nature.

So, in a nutshell, are Muslims trying to take over the world, and are they a threat to religious liberty?

In a rather large nutshell – a coconut, say – some of them are trying to take over the world, but they won't succeed; and they are only a threat to religious liberty where they are an intolerant majority. The best thing that Christians, and Western diplomacy, can do is to support Christians under pressure and avoid talk of a "clash of civilisations". It doesn't help.

So in America...?

Really, don't worry about it.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.