Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. Some are even concerned that Sharia, or Islamic law, may find its way to the United States, according to new surveys conducted by LifeWay Research.

"From all of the questions we asked, we would summarize that a little less than a quarter of Americans have a strongly held belief that Islam is dangerous by nature, a little less than a quarter have a strongly held belief that Islam is peaceful by nature, and over half of Americans don't share one of these strong opinions or are unsure what to believe," said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay's executive director.

While the "somewhat agree" and "disagree" numbers vary from question to question, there is no doubt that the "not sure" numbers are "definitely higher than we typically see," he added.

In particular, White House insiders can see that "the whole the Islamic State is not Islamic idea is not winning the day," said Stetzer, in a telephone interview. "Now, some people will disagree with whatever this president says simply because the sky is blue. But people are watching news reports day after day. ...  It's pretty hard to believe that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam when that is the primary way that ISIS keeps describing itself."

Thus, the LifeWay surveys, one of Protestant pastors and one of the general public, found that:

* One in four Americans -- 27 percent -- believes that the Islamic State reflects Islam's true nature, while 43 percent believe that Islam can create a peaceful society. However, nearly 48 percent disagree with the statement "ISIS is not Islamic," with only 22 percent agreeing. Nearly a third of the participants said they were not sure.

* In the general population, only a third of evangelicals said Islam can create a peaceful society, compared with 49 percent of Catholics and 47 percent of "nones," or religiously unaffiliated Americans.

* Among Protestant senior pastors, 61 percent disagreed that "true Islam creates a peaceful society," while 30 percent agreed. Only 23 percent of evangelical pastors agreed, along with a surprisingly low 42 percent of mainline, often liberal, Protestant clergy.

* Nearly half of the 1,000 Americans contacted disagreed with the statement that "ISIS is a true indication of what Islam looks like when Islam controls a society," compared with the 27 percent who supported that point of view. However, another 26 percent were uncertain.

One positive implication of the results on that question, noted Stetzer, is that it does appear that many Americans understand that there are "many forms of Islam." While it's hard for many Americans to believe that the Islamic State is "not Islamic," they may believe that this movement is only a radical form of this faith, and not the norm.

"If Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country," he added, "then isn't it logical to think that Indonesia is what Islam looks like? Now, Indonesia is not a walk in the park for Christians and other religious minorities, but that culture looks nothing like the Islamic State."