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New Poll and Report: What it Means to be American Ten Years after 9/11

Americans wrestling with acceptance, concerns over place of Muslims and Immigrants in society

Washington, D.C. – Ten years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a major national survey finds America continuing to struggle with what it means to be American and wrestling with how to resolve political, religious and ethnic differences in an increasingly diverse country.

Americans believe they are safer, but that they have less personal freedom and that the country is less respected in the world than it was prior to September 11, 2001, a new major national survey from Public Religion Research Institute finds.

The survey is the basis for a new joint report entitled What it Means to be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11. The report was co-authored by Dr. Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox of Public Religion Research Institute and E.J. Dionne and William A. Galston of the religion, policy and politics project at the Brookings Institution.

“Ten years after 9/11, Americans continue to grapple with issues of security, tolerance, and pluralism – matters that lie at the heart of what it means to be American,” said Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “Americans strongly affirm broad First Amendment principles and respect for difference, but they don’t always apply these principles evenly or consistently, particularly with regard to American Muslims and immigrants.”

The survey finds Americans struggling with their views of American Muslims. On the one hand, most Americans (54 percent) agree that Muslims are an important part of the U.S. religious community, and most report being generally comfortable with Muslims in a variety of social settings. On the other hand, Americans employ a double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims. More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

“Television news media also plays a powerful role in influencing views towards American Muslims,” said Cox, PRRI research director. “Americans who say they most trust Fox News are significantly more likely to hold negative views about Islam and American Muslims.”

“The ambivalence in the U.S. on the subject of immigration is one of the most powerful messages of the survey,” said Galston of Brookings. “A solid majority supports a path to citizenship, but a slim majority also supports deportation of illegal immigrants. These tensions suggest that there is considerable room for persuasion and leadership.”

Despite ambivalence on broader solutions, the survey finds solid support for the basic tenets of the DREAM Act: allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college (57 percent favor, 40 percent oppose).

“The survey underscores that the country is in the midst of the kind of argument it has had again and again over diversity and immigration, and that this debate now has a strong partisan and ideological dimension, which it has not always had,” said Dionne of Brookings. “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.”

Among the findings:

  • Ten years after the September 11th terrorist attacks, a small majority (53 percent) of Americans say that today the country is safer from terrorism than it was prior to the attacks. In contrast, nearly 8­in-10 (77 percent) say that Americans today have less personal freedom, and nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) say that America is less respected in the world today than before the terrorist attacks.
  • Americans strongly affirm First Amendment principles. Nearly 9-­in­-10 (88 percent) Americans agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular. Ninety-five percent of Americans agree that all religious books should be treated with respect even if we don’t share the religious beliefs of those who use them. Nearly two­thirds (66 percent) of Americans agree that we must maintain a strict separation of church and state.
  • Americans are evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life (47 percent agree, 48 percent disagree). There are strong partisan and ideological divides on this question.
  • By a margin of 2-to-1, the general public rejects the notion that American Muslims ultimately want to establish Shari’a law as the law of the land in the U.S. (61 percent disagree, 30 percent agree).
  • Nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) Americans say people in Muslim countries have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S., including 46 percent who say Muslims have a very unfavorable opinion of the U.S.Among this group, three-quarters believe that such views are not justified.
  • A majority (53 percent) of Americans believe the growing number of newcomers emigrating from other countries strengthens American society, compared to the 42 percent who say that newcomers threaten traditional American customs and values. There are also large partisan and ideological divides on this question.
  • Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. A slim majority (51 percent) disagree.
  • Ironically, the general public is significantly more likely to say that immigrants are changing American society (53 percent) than to say immigrants are changing their own community (38 percent).Conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals to say that immigrants are changing American society a lot and that this is a bad thing.
  • When Americans are asked to choose between a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that couples enforcement with a path to citizenship on the one hand, and an enforcement and deportation only approach on the other, Americans prefer the comprehensive approach to immigration reform over the enforcement only approach by a large margin (62 percent vs. 36 percent).

Read the report.

Read the survey questionnaire and methodology.

The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. Results of the survey were based on 2,450 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews, including 804 cell phone interviews, conducted between August 1, 2011 and August 14, 2011. The margin of error is +/-2.0 percentage points for the general sample at the 95 percent confidence interval.