Two out of five Republicans likely to participate in Iowa's presidential caucuses say they are inclined to view Islam as an inherently violent religion that inspires brutality by its followers, according to a new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll.
Twice as many Democrats—along with a majority of Republicans—say they view the world's second largest religion as inherently peaceful, the poll found.
The divisions, coming after the Charlie Hebdo killings in France and and the Islamic State's beheadings of several Western prisoners, may shape the way White House hopefuls from both parties address Islamic militancy, both in terms of fighting threats abroad and balancing freedom of religion and expression with security concerns.
In the poll, conducted Jan. 26-29, 402 likely Republican caucus-goers and 401 likely Democratic caucus-goers were asked: “When it comes to the Islamic faith, which of the following is closer to your view?” They were given two choices: “Islam is an inherently violent religion, which leads its followers to violent acts” and “Islam is an inherently peaceful religion, but there are some who twist its teachings to justify violence.”
Fifty-three percent of likely Republican caucus participants and 81 percent of likely Democratic caucus participants said they believe Islam is inherently peaceful. Only 13 percent of likely Democratic caucus participants said they view Islam as inherently violent, compared with 39 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Religion, age, and location were important factors in shaping respondents' views. “There are four demographic groups in which the dominant opinion is that Islam is inherently violent: those who describe themselves as very conservative (62 percent), seniors (53 percent), those who live in rural areas (52 percent), and born-again Christians (51 percent),” said J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. “Those are the constituencies that drive up the overall percentage among likely Republican caucus-goers.”
In either party, Selzer said, “the majority do not damn the whole religion for the actions of a few.” Still, among Republicans, “you have more than one in three that considers it a violent religion.”
Charles Coffey, 65, Garden Grove, Iowa, is in that group. The retired driver, who is Christian, said that “over the centuries even those who know Christ as savior have committed acts of war. But the Islamic religion has basically been assaultive on society since day one: 'Either you agree with us or we'll destroy you.'” In Coffey's view, extremists' acts of terrorism, plus what he sees as unfair treatment of women by Muslim men and governments, both seem to him to spring from the Islamic faith, though he added: “Don't get me wrong, I don't know that terribly much about it.”
He was surprised to learn his view isn't held by a majority of likely Republican caucus-goers in his state. “You're kidding me,” Coffey said. “I thought more people were paying attention than that.”
Coffey favors Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Republican frontrunner in the poll, saying that part of Walker's appeal is his reputation for not bowing to political correctness. Coffey said if he were to hear Walker talking about Islam being a peaceful religion, it would give him pause. “I'd have to have second thoughts about that, I really would,” he said.
In an appearance Sunday on ABC's This Week, Walker didn't address religion when he said he's open to sending U.S. troops to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State in a “surgical” operation. He said that “aggressively, we need to take the fight to ISIS and any other radical Islamic terrorist in and around the world” and that it's not a question of where but when radicals attempt an attack on U.S. soil.
Taking the opposite view from Coffey was Alex Bellings, 27, a customer-service worker from Coralville and likely Republican caucus-goer who sees Islam as a peaceful religion. Bellings, who studied international and religious studies in college, said he thinks age makes “a big difference” in people's viewpoints.
“I have a very good friend who is a member of the Islam faith,” he said. “Certainly, we've had many in-depth discussion about Islam and America. And I think taking classes in far Eastern religions and understanding the cultures has been very helpful to me in coming to my own conclusions about things.”
In fact, a majority of Republicans younger than age 45, 63 percent, said they viewed Islam as inherently peaceful. Those age 45 and older were evenly split, with 46 percent saying they thought the religion was inherently violent and and 45 percent saying they thought it was peaceful.
Bellings' early favorites among 2016 prospects are Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and minister. He said he likes Huckabee because “even though he carries his religion on his sleeve, it doesn't seem to get in the way of his making rational or well thought-out decisions.”
By contrast, Bellings said former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, another Christian conservative, doesn't appeal to him because it “seems like religion is the driving force with every decision he makes.”
Santorum has been among the most outspoken potential candidates on the issue. In November at Virginia's Liberty University, he said Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama “have given all Muslims a pass.” Santorum added that “I'm not saying that all Muslims are terrorists, nor do I say that all Muslims support terrorism,” but that in his view the threat from Islamic terrorists to the U.S. is “rooted in the belief in an all-powerful God and has over a billion adherents who are taught that their faith supersedes all other faith. In one form or another, Islam has been warring with western civilization for 1,300 years.”
The poll found a wider gap in the views of likely GOP caucus-goers who are women (35 percent say inherently violent, 56 percent say inherently peaceful) than among men (42-50). Similarly, those likely Republican caucus attendees with a college education were more likely to say the religion is inherently peaceful, 58-35, than those without a college education, who were basically tied, 44-45.
Where Iowa Republicans are divided, likely Democratic caucus-goers in the survey responded overwhelmingly with a view of inherently peaceful Islam that holds across gender, age, and educational differences. “I've just always felt like most religions, if they follow the Golden Rule, they are inherently peaceful,” said June McMahill, 79, a Hillary Clinton supporter. “There's always been extremists and radical elements, even in the Christian faith, the Crusades and those types of things.”
“In France, there's a backlash starting” against Muslims, McMahill said. “It's bound to affect our thoughts and feelings, and I'm sure Republicans are going to be taking a tougher stance on it” than Democrats.
“Everyone's going to have to raise their awareness, but not to the point of being phobic about it. You have to have some concern and not be blindsided but not be overreacting, either. Most of our Muslim people here are going to be fine, upstanding and just as concerned as the rest of us are,” she said.
She thinks her views also are influenced by geography, she said. Her hometown, Glenwood, sits not far from the Nebraska line and Offutt Air Force Base, and as a result, “maybe we've been exposed a little bit more” to diversity through the U.S. military, she said.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said voters' evolving views on Islam and its relationship to terrorism may well influence the debate, particularly in the Republican caucuses. In poll results released earlier this week, a quarter of likely Republican caucus-goers identified terrorism as the most important issue for the next president to address, compared to 10 percent of Democrats.
What's unclear is how candidates will address the issue, or whether it will play a more indirect role in campaign messaging, perhaps by adding pressure on libertarian-leaning candidates such as Paul to abandon isolationist strategies.
“There is a side of the party that feels the country is under attack by both the immigration issue and the Islamic terrorism issue and they want a solution,” Goldford said.
The 39 percent in the Iowa Republican sample who see the Islamic faith as violent are “a pretty big chunk,” he added. “So you certainly have to address their concerns. The question is not whether they'll address it, it's how they address it. And Democrats will have to deal with this, in terms of the general election certainly.”
Imam Johari Adbul-Malik, the outreach director at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., said he was encouraged by the fact that majorities in both parties considered Islam to be peaceful.
“We're trending in the right direction,” he said. “On balance, I think it's more good news than bad news.”