Barack Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim, but if he were of the latter faith, more than half of all Americans would have no idea what that affiliation meant beyond stereotypes, a new study finds.

Like nearly all social groups, Muslim Americans are a diverse group both politically and socially.

While some have tried to clarify Obama's religious affiliation, others have gone further and condemned the negative use of the label Muslim to elicit prejudice and fear.

Most recently, former Secretary of State Colin Powell rebuked the claims that Obama is a Muslim and said, "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is 'No. That's not America.'"

The new results based partly on national surveys suggest Americans think the Islamic religion is associated with violence and religious extremism, and perhaps even terrorism. Along with these negative views, which have spurred a general fear of Muslims, seven in 10 Americans admit they know very little about the Islamic religion.

"Clearly, many Americans are convinced Muslim Americans pose some kind of threat to American society," Duke University sociologist Jen'nan Ghazal Read writes in the fall issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association. "Two widespread assumptions fuel these fears. First, that there's only one kind of Islam and one kind of Muslim, both characterized by violence and anti-democratic tendencies. Second, that being a Muslim is the most salient identity for Muslim Americans."

Overall, Muslim Americans are, well, American. They have similar levels of career and educational attainment as the general American public; their political beliefs are just as varied as the general public; and their typical level of religious devotion is on par with that of many other religious groups, the research shows.

Fear of the unknown

The results come from interviews with more than 3,600 Muslim Americans in 2001 and 2004 by the Georgetown University Muslims in the American Public Square (MAPS) project and with 1,050 Muslim Americans in 2007 by the Pew Research Center. Information was also harvested from the General Social Survey run by the University of Chicago. And Read has conducted research for the past 10 years on the economic, political and cultural integration of Muslim and Arab Americans.

Some of the findings include:

  • Four in 10 Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam.
  • Five in 10 believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
  • Six in 10 believe Islam is very different from their own religion.

These views stem from misperceptions and just not knowing the facts, said Read, who volunteered that she is not Muslim.

For instance, people often confuse Muslim, which means a person who practices the religion Islam, with an ethnic group such as Arabs, she said.

But that's like assuming all Christians are African American or Irish American. In the United States, Read said, about 25 percent of Muslims are African American, while one-third are Arab, one-third are South Asian and a small group are U.S.-born Anglos and Hispanics who have converted to the Islamic religion. An estimated 2 million to 8 million Muslims currently live in the United States.

People often think of Islam and say, "Oh, that's Osama bin Laden," Read said. "Osama bin Laden is a terrorist who was using Islam to try to recruit people into his terrorist organization but Islam has nothing to do with terrorism."

Who are Muslims?

Read's research has painted a picture of Muslims that resembles the picture most of us have of most Americans.

"Muslim Americans look a lot like other groups of Americans," Read said.

On average, Muslim Americans tend to be highly educated, politically conscious and fluent in English. As a group, they share similar socio-economic characteristics with the general U.S. population in terms of education, income and employment: one-fourth has a bachelor's degree or higher; one-fourth lives in households with incomes of $75,000 or more; the majority are employed.

The same match-up goes for political and religious views. "Being a Muslim isn't necessarily the most important factor when it comes to their political attitudes," Read said.

For instance, the majority of both Muslim Americans and the general public oppose gay marriage and favor increased federal funding for the needy. Muslim Americans are slightly more conservative than the American public with regard to abortion, with 56 percent of Muslim Americans opposing it compared with 46 percent of the general public.

Foreign policy is the one area where Muslim Americans aren't entirely in step with the general public, particularly with regard to the Middle East. In 2007, for example, Americans were overall nearly four times as likely as Muslim Americans to say the war in Iraq was the "right decision," and twice as likely to say the same about the war in Afghanistan.

Like Christians, Jews and members of other faiths, Muslim Americans vary widely on their levels of religious devotion, along with how often they attend a mosque and pray.

"The idea is if you just group everybody together that's a Muslim by affiliation and then pretend like one characteristic defines them, well that's as silly as saying that all blacks can run fast," Read told LiveScience. "Being a Muslim doesn't mean they all hold the same values, attitudes, but we haven't been very good about recognizing that."

Muslims in politics

Even with such similarities, Read said, political campaigns have used the "Obama is Muslim" tactic to steer voters away from the Democratic presidential candidate.

"I think they're definitely trying to play it up a little bit more because it's socially acceptable to say [Obama is] Muslim and let that be used to scare people," Read said, adding that the tactic is meant to paint Obama as a non-mainstream American.

Educating the public about the diversity of Muslims and the Islamic faith could not only stem fears but also help to unite the nation.

"If we're going to face our nation's challenges in a truly democratic way, we need to move past the fear that Muslim Americans are un-American so we can bring them into the national dialogue," Read said.