April 22, 2008
What Muslims Think
Aijaz Zaka Syed
Opinion polls fascinate me. They are, if honestly conducted, perhaps the best possible way of gauging public opinion. At a time when spin is the norm and global media is controlled, manipulated and dictated by powerful corporate interests and governments, it’s not easy to get a clear picture on any given issue.
This is especially true when the story involves marginalized minorities and dispossessed groups. And of late the Muslims have been at the receiving end. After the disintegration of Soviet Union, the West found itself a new enemy in Islam.
The 9/11 attacks in the US and 7/7 strikes in the UK were only excuses, not the causes, to hasten this process. They might have contributed to the current hysteria against everything Islamic but they never were the Original Sin as we’ve been given to believe.
Myths like this have been demolished in a most interesting survey conducted by Gallup. What makes this opinion poll like no other is that it was conducted over a period of six years, beginning after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Gallup conducted research in 35 Muslim countries, interviewing more than 50,000 people, to come up with what it calls the first comprehensive survey of Muslim world opinion.
The results have also given birth to a book called, Who Speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed.
The poll and the book offer a much-needed reality check on the relations between the West and Muslim world. Some of the findings are genuinely surprising even for someone like me who has been obsessed with the issue.
Many conclusions of the poll only go to confirm what we in the Muslim world have always known but couldn’t succeed in putting them across to our friends in the West. For instance, the fact that it’s not Islamic teachings that drive some individuals to violence but historical injustices inflicted and perpetuated by some Western powers.
Which is why one so hopes that the urgent message this poll seeks to convey reaches the Western audience — and the wider world. It would be such a shame if it doesn’t. Because, as Dalia Mogahed argues in the book, this ostensible conflict between Islam and West is far from inevitable.
Many concerned commentators have repeatedly argued that what is fuelling the so-called clash of civilizations is not some absurd hatred of Christian West sanctioned by Islam but Western ignorance about Muslims. The poll backs this argument.
Most Muslims, regardless of where they live, whether in Saudi Arabia or Iran, are surprisingly well informed about the West and its values and ideals. In fact, most of them admire the West for its scientific achievements, economic progress and celebration of knowledge and excellence. The West is admired for the political freedom, democracy and rights it offers its people.
There are other findings that are equally interesting. Contrary to common perceptions in the West, the majority of respondents think men and women have equal rights. A whopping 94 percent of Indonesians share this view. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation. In Iran, the figure is 89 percent. And in Saudi Arabia, it’s 73 percent.
A great majority of Muslims also believe a woman can work outside her home in any job for which she is qualified (88 percent in Indonesia, 72 percent in Egypt and 78 percent in Saudi Arabia). And they also believe women should be able to vote without interference (87 percent in Indonesia, 91 percent in Egypt, 98 percent in Lebanon).
And what about the supposed Muslim sympathy for terrorism? While 6 percent of the Americans think attacks involving civilians are “completely justified,” in Saudi Arabia this figure is 4 percent. In Lebanon and Iran, it’s 2 percent.
And mark this, it’s important. The majority of Muslims absolutely rejects violence and terrorism. In fact, many of the respondents quoted Qur’anic verses to point out that extremism goes against Islamic teachings.
Going by these findings, would any reasonable person in his right mind blame Islam for extremism and violence? And remember, the survey was not sponsored by Al Jazeera, Bin Laden’s favorite channel, but by Gallup, the biggest name in the business.
So what is it then that drives the West and Muslim world apart? The answer lies in Western indifference, nay casual contempt, for a billion believers and all that they believe in. I am not saying this; Gallup poll does.
Again this shouldn’t come as a surprise. While admiring Western values such as democracy and freedom, Muslims feel these values are conveniently cast aside when it comes to applying them to Muslim world.
More than 65 percent of Egyptians, Jordanians and Iranians believe the US will never allow people in the Middle East to run their own affairs and chart their own course.
When the Gallup pollsters asked Muslims around the world what the West could do to improve relations with the Muslim world, the most frequent responses called for greater respect for Islam and treatment of Muslims as equals, not as inferior.
The Western contempt for Islam, especially the ignorance of Americans, is not something imagined by us. The poll findings speak for themselves. The majority of Americans (66 percent) admit to having “some” prejudice against Muslims; one in five say they have “a great deal” of prejudice. Almost half do not believe US Muslims are “loyal” to their country; and one in four doesn’t want a Muslim as a neighbor!
Given these views, is it any surprising that Muslims are invariably portrayed as terrorists in the US media, including that big propaganda machine called Hollywood?
If the Muslims harbor some degree of anti-US sentiment, it’s not because of what the Americans are but because of what they do or have been doing in the Muslim world. But how would you explain the deep-seated paranoia and Islamophobia in the US and West?
Whatever its causes, this divide is unfortunate and unnatural. Because there is a great deal lot that unites the Muslims and Americans. In an increasingly materialistic world, they continue to hold on to their belief in God.
Unlike in Europe and much of the world, religion plays a healthy role in the day-to-day life of the Americans as well as Muslims. They both cherish universal values like honesty, truthfulness, hard work, accountability and being always loyal to your family.
Just look around. What we have in common is much more than what we do not. Which is why this divide is such a tragedy. We Muslims want to bridge this gulf. Is the other side equally willing?
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