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To Know a Muslim

Amid the discouraging news about public opinion around the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, there is one positive, underlying theme. It’s a deeply American theme, and in these suspicious, often depressing times, it’s essential to remember: Education breeds respect. Familiarity begets trust.

The theme was found in the latest New York Times survey of city residents’ opinions toward the cultural center and mosque that was, until recently, just another development project in the part of town adjacent to Ground Zero. While 62% of New Yorkers said that Muslims had the right to build there, 67% said they’d prefer that the center found a less controversial home.

But those sentiments were heavily shaped by personal background and experience: Those who favor the construction were more likely to have a close Muslim friend (49% to 35%) and much more likely to be highly educated (60% with post-graduate education versus 24% with no college degree.)

This isn’t an anomaly. In a 2007 nationwide poll, the Pew Research Center found a similar correlation: 56% of those surveyed who knew Muslims had a favorable impression of them, but that positive view was shared by only 32% of those who didn’t know anyone who practiced Islam. And the pattern extends beyond this particular group. Pew found it also held true for attitudes toward Mormons, and toward gays and lesbians.

“The strong presumption here is that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt,” Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research, told the Forward. “Instead, familiarity breeds understanding and de-mystification.”

It’s heartening when political leaders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg show courage by speaking out against prejudice and ignorance, but it may be just as important to arrange a church picnic with a nearby mosque, or invite a Muslim acquaintance to a Passover seder, or support programs that promote genuine dialogue and education.

In the case of the beleaguered Islamic center, there is one other thing that would have helped mightily. When asked whether politicians from outside New York should take a stand, 64% of the respondents said “no.” If only those dangerous demagogues on the national stage who pretend to prize local opinion had listened.

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