NEW YORK // The number of Americans who wrongly believe Barack Obama is Muslim has grown since his inauguration last year, with almost one-fifth of respondents to a new survey identifying the president's faith as Islam. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 18 per cent of Americans wrongly believe Mr Obama is a Muslim - an increase of 11 per cent since March 2009. Only 34 per cent correctly identify his religion as Christian, and a further 43 per cent say they are unsure.
The president's faith, together with his country of origin, has long been a subject of speculation and debate, despite his regular attendance at church services and several public statements asserting his Christianity. Detractors and political opponents have sought to undermine Mr Obama by associating him with Islam, highlighting his middle name - Hussein - in e-mail and internet rumours, notably during the 2008 presidential race. The survey, in which more than 3,000 respondents were polled in July and early August, found that conservative Republicans are more likely to believe Mr Obama is a Muslim, with one-third linking him with Islam. Growing numbers of Democrats and independents, however, also made the same mistake.
White House officials blamed the results on "misinformation campaigns" conducted by the president's political rivals. Joshua DuBois, Mr Obama's faith adviser, told The Washington Post that the president was committed to his Christian faith. "There's certainly folks who are intent on spreading falsehoods about the president and his values and beliefs." Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was "disappointed" by the results of the survey, which demonstrated that as many as a third of Americans are "actively hostile" towards Islam.
"The whole myth of Obama being Muslim is just one of those things that adds to the overall level of Islamophobia in our society - and it's unfortunate," Mr Hooper said. "Generally, those who falsely believe the president is a Muslim are the same ones who are not too fond of Islam and Muslims." American Muslim groups describe a wave of hostility after religious extremists attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, but also point to a more recent surge following failed bomb attempts on a Detroit-bound jet in December and in Times Square in May.
Although the survey was carried out before Mr Obama weighed in on a fractious debate about building an Islamic centre near the World Trade Centre site, Park 51, previously called Cordoba House, has showcased hostility towards Islam in the US. Last week, the president waded into the bitter dispute over plans for an interfaith and prayer centre only blocks from Ground Zero, saying the American principle of religious freedom should apply to all faiths, and that Muslims should be able to worship freely in the US.
Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's director, said the confusion partly reflects "the intensification of negative views about Obama among his critics". Alan Cooperman, the Pew Forum's associate director for research, said that with the public hearing little about Mr Obama's religion, "maybe there's more possibility for other people to make suggestions that the president is this or he's really that or he's really a Muslim".
Mr Obama is the Christian son of a Kenyan Muslim father and an American mother. From age six to 10, Mr Obama lived in predominantly Muslim Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather. Despite the confusion about Mr Obama's religion, there is noteworthy support for how he uses his faith to make decisions. Nearly half, or 48 per cent, said he relies on his religion the right amount when making policy choices, 21 per cent said he uses it too little and 11 per cent too much.
At the same time, the poll provides broad indications that the public feels religion is playing a diminished role in politics today, with fewer people than in 2008 saying the Democratic and Republican parties are friendly toward religion. With elections for control of Congress just more than two months away, the poll contains optimistic news for Republicans. Half of white non-Hispanic Catholics, plus three in 10 unaffiliated with a religion and a third of Jews, support the Republican Party - all up since 2008.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by the Associated Press