The lack of knowledge about a particular topic or item combined with the lack of interest in learning about it, creates opinions formed from passive information, particularly those obtained from the news media. There is a direct relationship between the negative portrayal of and lack of knowledge about Islam in the media and Islamophobia. Religious illiteracy has been a pressing issue in America for quite a long time, and it has not necessarily been addressed. Stephen Prothero notes that in a 1945 Gallup poll, Americans were asked “to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity. Only a third were able to do so.” He goes on to say that “in a more recent study the overwhelming majority of Americans freely admit that they are not at all familiar with the basic teachings of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.”11 Considering the amount of ethnic and religious diversity in America, this fact is as ironic as problematic. Religious diversity is allowed by the Constitution. Citizens can practice their religion of choice, and the U.S. cannot declare a national religion.
In an ABC News poll conducted in 2004, Americans were asked questions that displayed their opinions about Islam. The poll noted which Americans felt they understood the religion and which Americans felt they did not understand or were unfamiliar with it. The results show that “[a]mong Americans who feel they do understand the religion, 59 percent call it peaceful and 46 percent think it teaches respect for the beliefs of others.” On the other hand, those who are unfamiliar with the religion are “19 points less likely to call it peaceful, and half as apt to say it respects other beliefs.” Lastly, when asked if their opinions were favorable of Islam, those “who feel they have a good understanding of Islam are 15 points more apt to view it favorably.”12 This data reiterates the fact that many Americans either do not have the time or are not interested in actively seeking out information from credible sources, yet at the same time are still forming opinions. What needs to be understood is that religion informs the decisions one makes, guides the way one lives life, and ultimately shapes how one views the world. If American citizens are not religiously literate enough to understand each other, how is the country going to be unified? In addition, it might be difficult for the nation to build solid relationships with certain nations abroad, in which a national religion is declared.
The exponential increase in attention that Islam has received in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 has caused a demand for the religion to explain every single action of those individuals who claim to be associated with it. With the media constantly displaying violent images associated with Islam, as well as with the mistranslation of words, the skepticism, prejudice, fear, or notion of Islamophobia that people have has become increasingly harder to remove. The portrayal of Muslim women has also caused Islam to appear as something alien and foreign. However, the substantial effect the media is having is largely due to most Americans forming opinions without actively seeking knowledge about Islam. The actions of a few individuals should not be able to define what a religion stands for. True Islam, and for that matter, most religions, stand for peace, justice, and humanity. Only one who is religiously literate will be able to recognize this important fact.