Across Europe and the U.S., fears over immigration, terrorism and crime have risen in recent years and become a prominent fixture in political discourse, especially when it comes to the world’s biggest religion: Islam.
But with the increased scrutiny of Islam has come a great deal of misinformation, so much so that most countries, including the U.S., wildly overestimate their Muslim populations, according to a recent study.
In a study entitled “The Perils of Perception,” polling agency Ipsos MORI reported that, on average, Americans guessed that the percentage of people in the U.S. was 17 percent, far above the actual number, one percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
But Americans were not even the most incorrect when it came to estimating the prevalence of Muslims in their country.
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In France, which has suffered three mass terrorist attacks linked to Islamic terror groups since January 2015, the average guess for the percentage of the Muslim population was 31 percent, while the actual number is 7.5 percent. In Germany, where the government’s decision to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees, many from the Middle East, was met with intense opposition, people overshot the actual number by an average of 16 percentage points. In Italy, where Pew reports that 69 percent of the population has an unfavorable view of Muslims in the country, the difference between the average guess and reality was 17 percent.
According to Pew, there are 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. If the average guess of 17 percent was correct, there would be 55 million (the U.S. population is a little over 325 million).
According to the HuffPost/YouGov poll, a majority of Americans have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Islam. Similarly, 53 percent of the population believe Muslims are not doing enough to combat radicalism in their own communities, and 60 percent believe the U.S. is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism,” according to polls from PRRI and Rasmussen Reports, respectively.
In the recent presidential election, Republican Donald Trump’s pledge to combat “radical Islamic terrorism” and proposal for a Muslim registry to prevent refugees from war-torn Islamic countries from entering the U.S. generated controversy and criticism but was cheered by his supporters. Concerns about terrorism are at their highest in more than a decade, according to CNN.
In addition, fears that sharia law, the law governing the Islamic faith, will be implemented in the United States have increased in recent months, boosted by false news reports claiming that activists and lawmakers have either implemented or tried to implement the law in Texas, Michigan, Colorado, Washington and in the U.S. Congress, according to Snopes.com.
The Ipsos MORI poll also asked participants to estimate what percentage of their population will be Muslim by 2020. Again, Americans wildly overestimated, saying 23 percent of the U.S. would be Muslim. Current projections have the actual number at 1.1 percent. According to a Pew poll, just 36 percent of Americans say they know someone who is Muslim.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the poll revealed that countries that are mostly Muslim, such as Turkey and Indonesia, actually underestimate the percentage of the population that is Muslim. In particular, the Turkish people undershot the right answer by 17 percentage points.