After two gunmen stormed into the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 12 people in the name of Islam, the world was left with lots of serious questions about the role of religion in the attacks.

Did the terrorists go on a murderous rampage because they were Muslim extremists defending their faith, or were they troubled men drawn to violence who used Islam as cover for the killings?

There’s debate on both sides, but the question itself raises a larger question that Americans have grappled with for years: Are violent people who claim to be acting on behalf of a religion truly devout or just hiding behind a religious banner?

It turns out that Americans have a striking double standard when it comes to their perceptions of religious violence, depending on which religion it is.

A meme making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter this week summarized this kind of bias by saying that when the shooter is a Muslim, the entire religion is guilty; when he or she is black, the entire race is guilty; but when the shooter is white, he or she is viewed by the public (and the media) as a “troubled lone wolf.”

A 2011 survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans are much more willing to say Muslim extremists who commit violence in the name of Islam are really Muslims than they are to say violent people who kill in the name of God are truly Christians.

Overall, 83 percent of Americans say people who commit violence and claim to be Christians are not really Christian, while less than half of Americans – 48 percent – think that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit violence in the name of Islam aren’t truly Muslims, the PRRI study found.

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In addition, Republicans were more likely to say violent acts by extremists were in line with Islam than were Democrats, according to the PRRI survey. Fifty-five percent of Republicans said they believe that a violent Muslim extremist is acting consistently with their faith, while only 40 percent of Democrats thought a violent act represented Islamic teaching.

The margin between the parties shrunk when people were asked whether violence is in line with Christianity: 86 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said violence was not Christian.

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Robert P. Jones, the institute’s CEO, says the types of people Americans know can explain the double standard.

“Americans are surrounded by Christians, so they have a lot of personal counterexamples in their very personal everyday lives that they use to discount the claims of a Christian extremist,” Jones said. “They can say, ‘Well, I know dozens of Christians who live exemplary lives, that has to be an outlier.’

“That’s not the case for Muslims. Muslims only make up 1 percent of the population and tend to live in concentrated areas away from other groups. Only 6 percent of Americans say they have a conversation with Muslims once a day. So most of Americans’ experience with Muslims is not personal, and is mediated through cable news and news accounts that tend to focus on violence.”

There’s one important – and fascinating – piece of context for this poll. It didn’t come in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 or another terrorist attack in the name of Islam. It was conducted in the wake of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, where Anders Behring Breivik, who is often called a Christian terrorist, killed 77 Norwegians by setting off a bomb and gunning down victims.

“Americans gave the answers they gave in the context of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white Christian man committing terrorism,” Jones said. “Even when they had a palpable example of someone who linked violence with his Christian faith, they weren’t willing to buy it at the end of the day.”

After the Norway attacks, prominent pundits like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News stridently said, “Breivik is not a Christian.”

“No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” O’Reilly said. “The man might have called himself a Christian on the ’net, but he is certainly not of that faith.”

More than 80 percent of Americans in all Christian groups in the institute’s study said that their faith didn’t condone violence. Of the Christian groups, however, the survey pointed out that white evangelical Protestants have the most strident views about whether violent people are true Muslims or true Christians. Only 10 percent of evangelicals believe that a self-identified violent Christian is acting in line with the Bible, compared to 57 percent who believe that Muslims who commit violence in the name of Islam are truly Muslim.

Muslim leaders sought to distance their religion from violence in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, claiming Islam is a religion of love and peace.

Top French imams, including Tareq Oubrou, who also is a Muslim theologian, denounced the violence and said Muslims were livid that their religion had “been confiscated by crazies.” Other prominent Muslims used social media to condemn the attacks using the hashtag #NotInMyName.

Even the brother of Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, said the shooters didn’t represent the Islamic faith he knew. Malek Merabet called the shooters “false Muslims.”

(The gunmen were caught on video yelling, “Allahu akbar” – “God is great” – in Arabic. This week, al-Qaida representatives in Yemen claimed responsibility for orchestrating the attacks, saying they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad by gunning down Charlie Hebdo’s staff.)

Muslim Americans are the religious group that believes most strongly that killing civilians is never justified – much more so than Protestants, Catholics, Jews or Mormons – according to a 2011 Gallup poll.

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This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.