Many US Catholics don’t have a positive view of Muslims, finds study

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SHAFAQNA – Only 14% of American Catholics have a favorable view of Muslims and Catholic media outlets tend to have a bias against Muslims, a study has found.

The findings, carried out by the Bridge initiative, a multi-year research project that focuses on Islamophobia at Georgetown University, conducted research on how mainstream and Catholic media consumption correlates to respondents’ perceptions of Islam.

Of the 1,027 self-identified Catholics polled, only 14% said they had favorable views of Islam and one in three said they had either very or somewhat unfavorable views. However, those who know Muslims personally – only three out of 10 respondents, which is less than the national average – had far more positive views of Muslims. Those who did not know a Muslim were twice as likely to have very unfavorable views.

Father Patrick Ryan of the Society of Jesus, McGinley professor of religion at Fordham University, said Catholic people’s view on Islam was unfortunately similar to the mainstream Christian American view. They tend to be, “rather hostile to Muslims with perceptions colored by things like 9/11 and the persecution of Christians in places like Syria”.

Inherent biases were also found among certain Catholic media outlets. Half of the time the word Islamic was mentioned between October 2014 and September 2015 in prominent Catholic media outlets, it was in relation to the Islamic State. More than 60% of readers of outlets like the Catholic World Report and Patheos Catholic Blogs said they had unfavorable views of Muslims. However, the authors note only a fraction of respondents consume Catholic media regularly.

The report also examined the news consumption of mainstream cable news networks. It found respondents who watched Fox News have a less favorable view of Muslims than those who prefer CNN and MSNBC. About a quarter of CNN and MSNBC watchers said they have unfavorable views of Islam, compared with 39% of Fox. More than half of the people who preferred Fox News said that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.

The outlets with the most negative sentiment in their headlines were also the outlets that mentioned Pope Francis the least. The pope has prioritized building Muslim-Catholic relations since he came to the Vatican last year, making several overtures to Muslims and Arab Christians. He has explicitly said Islam should not be associated with violent extremism, nations should embrace Syrian refugees, and he has prayed at the separation barrier at the West Bank.

He has also called out Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his controversial characterizations of Islam.

However, the pope’s leadership on the issue has not completely resonated with American Catholics. Nearly half of Catholics believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions around the world, the report said.

“Not every American Catholic bishop is backing him,” said Ryan, on the disconnect between American Catholics and the pope. The pope’s view on Islam is informed by his relations with Muslims and Jews in Argentina, Ryan added, which most American Catholics are not engaged in.

Muslims in the United States have become increasingly persecuted in the years since the 9/11 attacks. The rise to prominence of the Islamic State has also caused backlash for American and European Muslims. The Bridge Initiative released a study that found American Muslims were subjected to more hate crimes in 2015 than any other year since 9/11.

Catholics were long subjected to persecution themselves in the United States. Dr Pamela Cooper-White explained that Jewish and Catholic immigrants to America in the 19th century, following mostly Protestant settlers, were viewed as exotic.

“There’s always been a kind of Protestant hegemony over religion and politics,” Cooper-White said.

There was inherent distrust of Catholics and they were heavily persecuted for decades, and targeted by groups like the Klu Klux Klan. Catholic presidential candidate John F Kennedy had to give a speech to Baptist ministers to assure them that he would not take orders from the pope. Before Kennedy, Governor Al Smith of New York lost the 1928 presidential election as several churches opposed his nomination because he was Catholic.

Mainstream society has since welcomed Catholics – vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s Catholic roots are not a flashpoint in this election. “It’s forgotten how much that was the exception for the first half of the 20th century,” Ryan said. “Catholics have forgotten that.”

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