Americans are learning more about Islam, and familiarity with the faith makes people more likely to view Muslims favorably and less likely to believe Islam encourages violence, according to a new study.
The survey by the Pew Research Center also showed that Americans still believe Muslims face far more discrimination than the nation's other religious groups.
The findings can be linked because increased knowledge about Muslims is tied to more sensitivity about bias they face, said Greg Smith, the report's senior researcher.
"To say that Muslims are discriminated against ... it's not the same thing as expressing an unfavorable view of Muslims. In fact it's just the opposite," he said. "People who are most sympathetic to a group are more likely to see that group as being discriminated against."
In the annual survey released Wednesday, 58 percent of Americans said there was "a lot" of discrimination against Muslims. Jews were seen as the religious group with the next highest level of bias against them, with 35 percent saying they faced a lot of discrimination.
Gays and lesbians were the only group seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims, with almost two-thirds of Americans saying gay people are discriminated against a lot.
According to the Pew survey, belief among Americans that Islam encourages violence has fluctuated since the Sept. 11 attacks and was at its lowest level — a quarter of those surveyed — in March after the terror strikes.
By 2007, 45 percent of Americans believed Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence. This year, that number fell to 38 percent. The group most likely to say Islam encourages violence this year was conservative Republicans, at 55 percent. But that dropped 13 percentage points from two years ago, making them the group with the biggest change of opinion since 2007.
The survey, conducted by telephone, also indicated that Americans have grown steadily more knowledgeable about Islam: 41 percent knew that the Muslim name for God is Allah and the Quran is the Islamic sacred text, compared with 33 percent in March 2002.
The "small and gradual, but noticeable" change has an affect, Smith said. Those most familiar with Islam were least likely to link the religion with violence. Fifty-seven percent of people who knew the names Muslims use to refer to God and their sacred text, and were also acquainted with a Muslim, said Islam did not encourage violence more than other faiths.
The same percentage of that group said their overall opinion of Muslims was favorable, and 70 percent of that group said there's discrimination against Muslims.
Only 21 percent of those with a low familiarity with Islam had a favorable opinion of Muslims, and less than half of that group saw a lot of discrimination against them.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Pew's findings back up his own group's research. He blamed a "vocal minority" in the United States for fanning anti-Muslim bias with increasingly harsh rhetoric since 9/11.
"Unfortunately, people have focused on that tiny, tiny minority of Muslims who have carried out violent acts, and claim to act in the name of Islam," he said. "Ninety-nine point nine, nine percent of all Muslims will live and die without coming near an act of violence."