Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion — and by 2050, Muslims will have nearly pulled even with Christians in terms of population.
That's according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. With the greater prevalence of Islam in the United States, the report questions whether Americans' tolerance of Muslims will increase with their presence.
Senior Shamira Lukomwa, president of the UNC Muslim Students Association, said Islamophobic leanings in America are in part due to the lack of familiarity with Muslims and their religion.
"I would assume that if there were more Muslims, people would be more close to Islam and know Muslims, and hopefully that would change their perspectives on Islam and Muslims in general," Lukomwa said.
Matthew Hotham, a graduate student in the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, agreed that more personal relationships with minorities lead to greater tolerance of them.
"We can hope that as more non-Muslim Americans have Muslim friends and relatives, in tandem with better representation of Muslims in popular media, they will gain a more complex and nuanced understanding of Islam," he said.
Still, Hotham said the increased number of Muslims could lead to stronger anti-Muslim sentiments.
"If certain demographics of Americans respond from a place of fear, anxiety over increasing religious and ethnic diversity could lead to political isolationism, restrictive immigration policies, increasing voter suppression, and greater discrimination and segregation," Hotham said.
Carl Ernst, a UNC religious studies professor and co-director of the center, said that while the Muslim population may grow, Muslims are still a tiny fraction of the overall American population.
"There is a kind of insecurity among certain sectors that whites are going to become a minority in America, and people get scared when they blow up these figures into an alarming situation," Ernst said.
The report acknowledged that the statistics appear to consolidate billions of practicing Christians and Muslims into simple groups — while they are in fact divided into denominations or factions that have little in common with one another.
Lukomwa said that because a lot of people don't know Muslims personally, they are misrepresented throughout news media, pop culture and entertainment.
"That's maybe why people have a sour taste in their mouth about Muslims and Islam, which I feel like is completely unjustified, and it's not really fair to base your thoughts on people based on stereotypes in the media," she said.
Ernst said he thinks there's potential for anti-Islamic prejudices to be diffused in America.
"I think prejudice has a high correlation with ignorance," Ernst said. "Muslims in America are frequently well educated and generally closely integrated into society in ways that, I think, are ultimately very helpful."