WASHINGTON – Americans are deeply divided over whether Islam encourages more violence than other religions, according to a poll released on Wednesday ahead of controversial congressional hearings to be held on Islamic radicalism.
Forty percent of Americans say Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, with 42% disagreeing, a Pew Research Center poll of 1,504 adults surveyed in the last week of February found.
Blacks, Hispanics and those under 30 were less likely than average to connect Islam with violence, while older people, whites and evangelical Christians were more likely to connect the two. One of the largest divisions, however, was political: 66% of conservatives say Islam encourages more violence, compared to only 29% of liberals.
The results were released one day before Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the US House Homeland Security Committee, is set to hold hearings on "the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community's response."
In preparation for these hearings, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, founded by terrorism expert Steven Emerson, compiled a report on US Department of Justice convictions of defendants with ties to international and homegrown terrorism.
More than 80% of all convictions since 9/11 involve defendants driven by a radical Islamist agenda, according to the report. And while Muslims represent only about 1% of the American population, they were the defendants in 186 of the 228 cases the Department of Justice lists.
Noting the controversy swirling over the hearings, the report begins by stating, "Critics have taken issue with the focus on one religious minority, but the DOJ list shows that radical Islamists are disproportionately involved in terror-related crimes."
The report indicates that 30% of the terrorism cases are connected to al-Qaida, another 10.5% are connected to Hezbollah, and 9% are connected to Hamas.
Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and Colombia's FARC are the leading non-Islamist terrorist groups, combining for 14% of the total, according to the report.
The hearings are being criticized by Muslims, progressives and other American constituencies who fear they will be used to demonize the religious group and heighten Islamaphobia.
The New York Times weighed in with an editorial on Monday titled "Peter King's Obsession" and charging that "Not much spreads fear and bigotry faster than a public official intent on playing the politics of division.
On Thursday, Representative Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is scheduled to open a series of hearings that seem designed to stoke fear against American Muslims."
A broad coalition of Muslim and progressive groups has written to King opposing the hearings, explaining, "Our concern is that these hearings will serve to further promote the demonization and scapegoating of millions of American Muslims, while providing little valuable insight into the prevention of domestic terrorism."
One of the signatories, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, praised the Obama administration for trying to reassure Muslims at the same time that the hearings go forward.
They welcomed a speech by Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in which he called Muslims part of the "American family."
"While some elected officials exclude Muslims from dialogue and stereotype an entire religion based on the misguided actions of a few, McDonough's speech at the ADAMS Center underscores the importance for all Americans, regardless of their faith, to be able to critique or disagree with both domestic and foreign policy," the Muslim Public Affairs Council said, in lauding his visit.
Several progressive Jewish groups, including Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, also signed the letter to King.
Separately, J Street put out a statement slamming the hearings on Wednesday.
"This hearing is also, in our view, not aligned with Jewish values," J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said. "As Jews, our own stories of persecution cannot help but inform our strong commitment to combating persecution and ethnic fear and division wherever they lie."
But mainstream Jewish groups that have spoken out are more welcoming of the hearings, including the American Jewish Committee.
"As both Americans and Jews, we cannot afford to ignore the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism to our country and community. The recruitment of terrorists on American soil affects innocent Muslims, first and foremost, but ultimately endangers us all," Yehudit Barsky, director of the AJC's division on Middle East and international terrorism, wrote in the New York Jewish Week.
She argued that the ideology of Islamic extremism is "intrinsically anti-Semitic," and stressed that "even as we must be ever vigilant against discrimination, whether against our Muslim fellow citizens or anyone else, we must also remain focused on the very real threats that imperil our nation's security."