The one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden has prompted a fierce political skirmish about whether it is within the bounds of decency for President Obama to tout the terrorist mastermind’s death. But it’s also worth taking a moment to look back on Americans’ reactions to the news of the notorious terrorist’s death. Last May, a PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey took the nation’s pulse on the issue just days after bin Laden’s killing was announced. From this survey, a few findings stand out.
Six-in-ten (62%) Americans agreed it is wrong to celebrate the death of another human being, no matter how bad that person was. Roughly 4-in-10 (39%) Americans agreed that God had a hand in helping the U.S. locate bin Laden. And nearly two-thirds (65%) said that bin Laden would be eternally punished for his sins in hell.
Other surveys have shown that global confidence in al Qaeda had declined steeply among Muslims in important Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan. Few Muslims abroad report having a favorable view of al Qaeda, bin Laden’s terrorist network. Nearly all (98%) Lebanese Muslims report an unfavorable view of al Qaeda, while 77% of Jordanian Muslims, 73% of Turkish Muslims, and 71% of Egyptian Muslims say the same.
Although the debate over whether Obama should use the killing of bin Laden as fodder for his reelection campaign may interest the political cognoscenti, there are larger cultural questions that will remain well after the election dust settles in November. For instance, will Islam gain acceptance in American society or will it remain at the unpopular periphery of the American religious community? Last May, the vast majority (82%) of Americans agreed that bin Laden distorted the teachings of Islam to suit his own purposes, including 60% who completely agreed.
But Americans nonetheless remain divided over the Islam’s compatibility with American values. Forty-seven percent agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, while 48% disagree. And they also employ a double standard when considering whether a person who commits violence in the name of Christianity is a “real” Christian, compared to those who commit violence in the name of Islam. More than 8-in-10 (83%) Americans agree that people who claim to be Christian and commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. Fewer than half (48%) say the same of a Muslim who commits acts of violence in the name of Islam.