WASHINGTON — Nearly a decade after 9/11, less than a third of the country feels favorably toward Islam. Most Americans reflexively oppose an Islamic cultural center near ground zero, and the lower the Christian president's approval ratings, the higher the percentage of people who think he's Muslim.
Beyond the simplistic debate — are we patriots or bigots? —pollsters, historians and other experts say that the nation's collective instincts toward Islam have been shaped over decades by a patchwork of factors. These include demographic trends, psychology, terrorism events, U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics, media coverage and the Internet.
Estimates of the number of U.S. Muslims range between 2.5 million and 7 million, or about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. There's no official data on U.S. Muslims' geographic distribution, but mosques are concentrated in metropolitan areas.
Most Americans are Christian and most don't have much direct exposure to Muslims. A fourth of Americans say they know "nothing at all" about Islam, the Pew Research Center found earlier this month, and of non-Muslims polled, 58 percent said they don't know any Muslims.
It's natural for people who don't know Muslims to draw stereotypes from 9/11 and feel them reinforced by recent scares such as the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings and the Times Square bomb plot, said Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"One of the things we know about cross-relationships of any kind is they become more positive as people have more personal contact with each other," Huddy said.
So what shaped modern American impressions of Muslims?
Long before 9/11, other high-profile terrorist attacks inflamed the public imagination. Consider the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which took 270 lives, and the rise of suicide bombers.
While most Muslims aren't terrorists, most terrorist attacks on U.S. targets or allies over the past 40 years were committed by aggressors who were Muslim or Middle Eastern. Then came 9/11 and a decade of U.S. wars in Muslim lands.
"There have been so many acts of terrorism connected to radical Muslims that it's not surprising Islam has a public relations problem," said John Radsan, a former counsel for the CIA of Iranian descent who's a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.
"Most Americans up until the Iranian revolution did not experience Muslims," said John Esposito, the founding director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Iran's 1979 revolution overthrew the Shah, whom Muslim revolutionaries denounced as a U.S. puppet installed by the CIA. There was little U.S. public understanding of the CIA's role in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian leader and the resultant widespread Iranian public anger toward the U.S.
"When we saw people shouting 'Death to America'... we had no context to put that in," Esposito said.
The Internet and social networking applications have bypassed the traditional media filter and magnified the influence of fringe activists on public perceptions of Islam.
Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, cited Pam Geller, a blogger who's warned of "Islamization" of America and is a strident opponent of the New York Islamic cultural center. Bagby said that Americans' long-held suspicions of Muslims are "made more virulent by these groups."