44% of Americans favor curtailing some Muslim liberties

December 17, 2004

ITHACA, N.Y. -- In a study to determine how much the public fears terrorism, almost half of respondents polled nationally said they believe the U.S. government should -- in some way -- curtail civil liberties for Muslim Americans, according to a new survey released today (Dec. 17) by Cornell University.

About 27 percent of respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government, and 26 percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Twenty-nine percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising. About 22 percent said the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats based on the fact that they are Muslim or have Middle Eastern heritage. In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans.

Conversely, 48 percent of respondents nationally said they do not believe that civil liberties for Muslim Americans should be restricted.

The Media and Society Research Group, in Cornell's Department of Communication, commissioned the poll, which was supervised by the Survey Research Institute, in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The results were based on 715 completed telephone interviews of respondents across the United States, and the poll has a margin of error of 3.6 percent.

The survey also examined the relation of religiosity to perceptions of Islam and Islamic countries among Christian respondents. Sixty-five percent of self-described highly religious people queried said they view Islam as encouraging violence more than other religions do; in comparison, 42 percent of the respondents who said they were not highly religious saw Islam as encouraging violence. In addition, highly religious respondents also were more likely to describe Islamic countries as violent (64 percent), fanatical (61 percent) and dangerous (64 percent). Fewer of the respondents who said they were not highly religious described Islamic countries as violent (49 percent), fanatical (46 percent) and dangerous (44 percent). But 80 percent of all respondents said they see Islamic countries as being oppressive toward women.

"Our results highlight the need for continued dialogue about issues of civil liberties in time of war," says James Shanahan, Cornell associate professor of communication and a principal investigator in the study. Shanahan and Erik Nisbet, senior research associate with the ILR Survey Research Institute, commissioned the study, and Ron Ostman, professor of communication, and his students administered it.

Shanahan notes: "Most Americans understand that balancing political freedoms with security can sometimes be difficult. Nevertheless, while a majority of Americans support civil liberties even in these difficult times, and while more discussion about civil liberties is always warranted, our findings highlight that personal religiosity as well as exposure to news media are two important correlates of support for restrictions. We need to explore why these two very important channels of discourse may nurture fear rather than understanding."

Researchers found that opinions on restricting civil liberties for Muslim Americans vary by political self-identification. About 40 percent of Republican respondents agreed that Muslim Americans should be required to register their whereabouts, compared with 24 percent of Democratic respondents and 17 percent of independents. Forty-one percent of Republican respondents said that Muslim American civic groups should be infiltrated, compared with 21 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents.

On whether mosques should be monitored, about 34 percent of the Republicans polled agreed they should be, compared with 22 percent of Democrats. Thirty-four percent of Republicans said that profiling of Muslim Americans is necessary, compared with 17 percent of Democrats.

The survey also showed a correlation between television news-viewing habits, a respondent's fear level and attitudes toward restrictions on civil liberties for all Americans. Respondents who paid a lot of attention to television news were more likely to favor restrictions on civil liberties, such as greater power for the government to monitor the Internet. Respondents who paid less attention to television news were less likely to support such measures. "The more attention paid to television news, the more you fear terrorism, and you are more likely to favor restrictions on civil liberties," says Nisbet.
-end-


Cornell University

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