Many Americans have a double standard when it comes to judging whether self-identified Christians and Muslims are committing violence in the name of their religion, according to new data released just a week after two Muslims were accused of shooting and killing 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
A Public Religion Research Institute poll released Thursday finds that 75 percent of Americans believe that self-identified Christians “who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christian.” Only about 19 percent of respondents said they believe these types of perpetrators are authentic Christians.
However, Americans don’t extend the same logic to the Islamic faith. The same poll found that only half of Americans believe that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslim, while a much higher number — 37 percent — believe that Muslim perpetrators are acting in the name of their religion.
The poll surveyed 1,003 adults across 50 states.
The recent attack in San Bernardino was carried out by self-identified Muslims who were reportedly radicalized two years ago and also claimed to support the extremist group ISIS (also called ISIL or Daesh). In response, influential conservative leaders have singled out Muslims as a whole, mainstreaming a bleak portrayal of their religion as one that is inherently violent. In the aftermath of the recent attacks, GOP presidential candidates have called to shut down mosques, allow entry into the country for only Christian Syrian refugees, and implement an outright ban on Muslims entering the United States.
At the same time, however, influential leaders have been less inclined to portray Robert Dear — arrested for killing three and wounding nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado — as a “Christian terrorist,” even though he was likely inspired by anti-abortion ideology rooted in his conservative faith. Even when new information came to light that appeared to connect Dear with right-wing extremist movements claiming Christian roots, conservative news outlets maintained that the influence of those groups were “overhyped.”
Dear was “very religious, read the Bible often and are always talking about scripture,” according to the New York Times. A close relative of Dear’s girlfriend also said, “He believed he was doing God’s will, and I’m sure he probably wanted to die in the process of carrying out what I’m sure he thought was right.” He also described as “heroes” members of the Army of God, a group that has long used the Bible to justify killings and bombings at abortion clinics.
The reaction to Dear speaks to the fact that people who identify as Christian — the majority religion in the United States — are not expected to represent their entire faith as a whole. Muslims, on the other hand, are consistently required to speak out on behalf of their faith to dissociate themselves from radical Islamists, especially in the aftermath of terror attacks.
Despite many survey respondents stating they don’t much know much about Islam, the PRRI poll found that many Americans believe U.S. Muslims have not done enough to combat extremism, with two-thirds of Republicans saying that the group hasn’t worked hard enough to address the extreme actors in their communities. About 45 percent of Democrats and another 52 percent of independents voiced similar views.
In fact, U.S. and worldwide Muslims have strongly condemned the San Bernardino shooting and the terrorist attacks in Paris, France. They have also publicly disavowed both the ideology and the practices of ISIS. After learning that the shooters in California were Muslim, the Muslims United for San Bernardino campaign raised more than $100,000 in four days to help defray funeral expenses and needs.
Perceptions have a way of seeping into policy. Numerous states have proposed bills banning Islamic sharia law, a Muslim moral code, despite its non-existent threat to Americans. Regardless of the religion to which people identify, they still have to adhere to state or local law.