WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after Sept. 11, less than a third of the country feels favorably toward Islam. Most Americans reflexively oppose an Islamic cultural center near ground zero, and the lower the Christian president's approval ratings, the higher the percentage of people who think he's Muslim.
Beyond the simplistic debate — are we patriots or bigots? — pollsters, historians and other experts say that the nation's collective instincts toward Islam have been shaped over decades by a patchwork of factors. These include demographic trends, psychology, terrorism events, U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, media coverage and the Internet.
Estimates of U.S. Muslims range between 2.5 million and 7 million, or about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. There's no official data on U.S. Muslims' geographic distribution, but mosques are concentrated in metropolitan areas.
Most Americans are Christian, and most don't have much direct exposure to Muslims. A quarter of Americans say they know "nothing at all" about Islam, the Pew Research Center found this month, and of non-Muslims polled, 58 percent said they don't know any Muslims.
It's natural for people who don't know Muslims to draw strong stereotypes from Sept. 11 and feel them reinforced by recent scares such as the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings and the Times Square bomb plot, said Leonie Huddy, the president of the International Society for Political Psychology and a political scientist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
A Gallup survey last year found that Americans who don't personally know any Muslims were twice as likely to admit to "a great deal" of anti-Muslim prejudice. Republicans and those without college educations tend to be less favorable toward Islam.
Muslims are "very much the new outsider," said John Esposito, the founding director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "We've had Christian cults that have committed acts of violence; killings of abortion doctors. (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy) McVeigh. (However,) we have a gut context in which we place it. Muslims don't fit that profile."
So what shaped modern American impressions of Muslims?
Long before Sept. 11, other high-profile terrorist attacks inflamed the public imagination. Consider the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the 1988 midair bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which took 270 lives, and the rise of suicide bombers throughout the Middle East.
While most Muslims aren't terrorists, most terrorist attacks on U.S. targets or allies over the past 40 years were committed by aggressors who were Muslim or Middle Eastern. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and a decade of U.S. wars in Muslim lands.
"There have been so many acts of terrorism connected to radical Muslims that it's not surprising Islam has a public relations problem," said John Radsan, a former assistant general counsel for the CIA of Iranian descent who's a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.
"Most Americans up until the Iranian revolution did not experience Muslims," Esposito said.
Iran's 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, whom Muslim revolutionaries denounced as a "U.S. puppet" installed by the CIA. There was little U.S. public understanding of the CIA's role in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected leader and widespread Iranian public anger toward the United States, Espositio said.
U.S. political and cultural leaders also help shape public attitudes. Their reactions to the planned Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site offer an example.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama supported the project's developers' right to proceed, and Obama spoke out against religious discrimination. However, the president sent a mixed message when he said the next day that he wasn't commenting on the wisdom of the project's location — a neighborhood filled with bars, restaurants, a strip club and a betting parlor.
The outspoken opposition of prominent Republicans — including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin — connects the Sept. 11 attacks to Islam. The issue could become divisive in some elections this November.
The Internet and social networking applications have bypassed the traditional media filter and magnified the influence of fringe activists on public perceptions of Islam.
Anti-Muslim feelings aren't likely to decline substantially until American attitudes improve toward the religion itself, said Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
Muslims are the most negatively viewed faith community in the country, Gallup found. However, Pew polling found Americans also think that Muslims face the most discrimination of any U.S. religious group.
Catholics and Jews once experienced discrimination that's ebbed with time. So have U.S. ethnic minorities like Japanese-Americans and German-Americans been persecuted during eras of war with their homelands.