June 6, 2008
Billion Muslims and West Want Dialogue, Coexistence
Dalia Mogahed & Ahmed Younis
The Gallup Organization — a world leader in global opinion research — has recently self-funded a World Poll which gathers opinion data in the areas of leadership, law and order, food/shelter, work, economics, health, well-being, citizen engagement from the peoples of 130 countries.
The World Poll gathers opinions around the world annually following Gallup’s guiding principles of independence and integrity.
The Coexist Foundation, a UK-registered charity, has a mission to promote better understanding between members of the Abrahamic faiths and also their relations with other religions and the secular world through education, dialogue and research.
As part of the World Poll, Gallup gathers data from the Muslim World and the West about people’s beliefs about education, religion, culture and democracy.
The Coexist Foundation has developed a not-for-profit relationship with the Gallup Organization. Together, these two entities share the belief that the accurate collection and dissemination of this data to key opinion leaders will lead to a better understanding between people of different faiths and cultures and consequently better relations.
Gallup and the Coexist Foundation will be pursuing collaborating partners in order to advance the facilitation and dissemination of this information. The first of these collaborating partners is the Coexistence Trust, a UK-based organization of parliamentarians, whose mission is to provide senior Muslim and Jewish political leaders with information to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, worldwide.
Can Conflict Be Avoided?
How do Muslims around the world view relations between the West and the Muslim world? Do they see cooperation or conflict? Where there are problems, who do they think is at fault? Are they optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Though majority of Muslim populations around the world have a great deal of pessimism about the state of the relationship, they also believe that violent conflict between the West and the Muslim world can be avoided. Though many Muslims believe the West does not respect them, they still believe greater interaction with the West is more a benefit than a threat. Americans and Canadians also believe greater interaction with the Muslim world is a benefit. Though both sides wish for better relations, both sides lack trust in the other’s good intentions.
Palestinians are among the most likely to say Muslim-West relations are worsening, reflecting the acute conflicts currently raging in the Palestinian territories and underscoring the importance of their resolution to the state of the dialogue.
With tensions between Iran and the United States intensifying, one might expect the Iranian public to be among the most pessimistic about the future of Muslim-West relations. It is therefore worth noting the relative ambivalence among the Iranian public on this question. Iranians may be drawing a distinction between disliked US policies directed at their country and the overall state of the Muslim-West relationship, especially because some US actions in the region are considered positive by many Iranians. Hostile to Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iranians have held less negative opinions of the invasion of Iraq than have residents of other Muslim majority countries, for example.
Moreover, Iran’s relatively favorable trade relationship with some European nations may make Iranians less prone to regarding the United States as a proxy for the West. The majority of Iranians also believe that tension between the West and the Muslim world is due to political, not underlying cultural or religious factors, which may make them less pessimistic than one might expect about Muslim-West relations as a whole.
The Reality-Perception Gap
Among both Muslim majority and non-Muslim majority nations, the proportion that say they think the “other side” is committed to better relations rarely rises above a minority. However, majority of residents in nations around the world say that better interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds is important to them.
Three in four US residents say the Muslim world is not committed to improving relations with the West; an identical percentage of Palestinians attribute the same apathy to the West. At least half of respondents in Italy (58 percent), Denmark (52 percent) and Spain (50 percent) agree that the Muslim world is not committed to improving relations.
Israelis represent a notable exception; almost two-thirds (64 percent) believe the Muslim world is committed to improvement.
Among the majority-Muslim nations surveyed, we see roughly the same pattern; majorities in every Middle Eastern country studied believe the West is not committed to better relations with the Muslim world, while respondents in majority-Muslim Asian countries are about evenly split.
Despite low levels of confidence in the commitment of those on the “other side,” majority in most nations surveyed in both the Muslim and Western worlds say that the quality of interactions between the two is important to them. In some Western countries, including Denmark, the United States, Belgium, Italy, Canada and Spain, and Israel, the percentage who say the issue is important to them is even higher than the percentage who give the Western world credit for commitment to improved relations.
In other words, some respondents believe their personal level of concern is higher than that of their own leadership, not to mention the leadership of the “other side.”
In the Middle East, Iranians are most likely to say the interaction between the West and the Muslim world is important, at 70 percent, followed by Turks at 64 percent. The US-imposed sanctions, as well as the threat of a US-led attack, make better relations with the West a vital priority for Iranians. Turkey’s geographic and economic ties with Europe, as well as its bid for EU membership, make improving relations an imperative there as well.
The implication is that residents in these countries are most likely to see potential for positive or negative change in their individual and regional realities stemming from the actions and policies of the West.
Though most Muslims say the Muslim world respects the West, many of them feel that the West does not respect the Muslim world.
In 2005, Gallup asked residents of several Muslim majority countries to explain in their own words what the West could do to improve relations with the Muslim world. The most frequent response, from countries as different as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can be summed up with this statement: “Show greater respect for Islam and stop regarding Muslims as inferior.”
Many Muslim populations believe that the Western world lacks respect for the Muslim world. The vast majority of Palestinians (84 percent) and Egyptians (80 percent) say this is the case, while the numbers from Turkey (68 percent), Saudi Arabia (67 percent) and Iran (62 percent) are only somewhat lower.
These findings illustrate a consistent sense of being disrespected across nations that have very different economic, political and geostrategic relationships with the West.
In contrast, most residents in all but one majority-Muslim nation believe that the Muslim world respects the Western world. Two-thirds of respondents in Indonesia (65 percent), the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, believe that the Muslim world respects the West; similar numbers are seen in Saudi Arabia (72 percent), the Palestinian Territories (69 percent) and Egypt (62 percent). On this question, as on others within the index, non-Arab nations of the Middle East diverge from their Arab neighbors. In Iran the percentage who say the Muslim world respects the West is somewhat lower at 52 percent, while Turkey is the only country in which this figure represents less than a majority, at 45 percent.
However, while most respondents in almost all Muslim-majority countries say the Muslim world respects the Western world, majorities of those in Western countries (and Israel) disagree. Eighty-two percent of Americans and 73 percent of Israelis believe that the Muslim world does not respect the West. Similarly high figures are seen in Spain (63 percent), site of the Madrid terrorist bombing of 2004, Denmark (69 percent), where the international firestorm over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) originated in 2005, and the Netherlands (55 percent), where the 2004 killing of a Dutch filmmaker by a young Muslim has sparked controversy.
However, the index reveals that even in the nations studied with no obvious conflicts or significant dysfunction with local Muslim minority communities — such as Italy (70 percent), Canada (67 percent) and Sweden (54 percent) — high percentages of respondents feel the West is disrespected.
If residents of Muslim majority countries mostly say their society respects the West, why do Westerners feel disrespected? A possible explanation is that Westerners may conflate negative opinion of the United States common in the Muslim world with a rejection of the West and its values as a whole.
This perception is intensified by cultural firestorms such as the Danish cartoon controversy, which leave some Westerners feeling that Muslims do not respect “Western values” of free speech, and therefore do not respect the West. For example, nearly 1 in 2 Danes say they consider Islam to be incompatible with democracy, and a slight majority said in 2006 that they believed the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was right to print the controversial cartoon as a demonstration of free speech. While most Americans (61 percent) said they believed it was irresponsible to print the cartoons, the same percentage blamed Muslims’ intolerance to other points of view rather than Western disrespect for Islam for the controversy. In other words, many Westerners regarded the reaction of some Muslims to the printing of the cartoon as disrespectful to Western values, just as many Muslims saw the wide distribution of the caricature as an assault on their tradition.
Data suggest, however, that Muslims’ unfavorable views of the United States are more often driven by resentment of its perceived policies than by rejection of its values, and that the diverse reactions to the Danish cartoons observed across the Muslim world were much more complex than simply a rejection of free speech. Often incited by local factors and aggravated by longstanding seemingly unrelated political grievances with Western powers, the actions of a violent and vocal minority in response to the caricature do not represent populations who oppose liberty.
In reality, the vast majority of Muslims support the value of free speech in principle. Ninety-four percent of Egyptians and 92 percent of Iranians, for example, say they would guarantee the right of free speech if they were asked to draft a constitution for a new country. Many Muslim-world respondents also cite freedom of expression as among the qualities of the West that they most admire.
And yet, the Danish cartoon was clearly offensive to many Muslims who felt it violated the boundaries of free speech. Some Europeans agreed; 30 percent of the German public, 45 percent French and a majority (57 percent) of the British public said in 2007 that printing the cartoon was not protected by freedom of speech.
Though Europeans were split about the acceptability of printing the Danish cartoon, there was broad consensus rejecting other expressions; strong majorities said that newspapers should not be allowed to print racial slurs, child pornography or jokes about the holocaust. For example, more than 8 out of 10 of the German public said that racial slurs and jokes about the holocaust were not protected by free speech.
These trends suggest that while Western and Muslim communities both claim free speech as a value, each society creates what it considers are appropriate limits to this freedom — sometimes differing even among societies who share a common faith.
Discriminating between a more manageable difference in cultural definitions on the one hand and an insurmountable clash of basic values on the other is essential to moving the dialogue forward.
Though some might expect the United States, Israel and the Middle East to be more likely than Europe to feel threatened by the “other”, the opposite is the case. In the United States (70 percent), Canada (72 percent) and Israel (56 percent) majorities say that greater interaction is a benefit. Similarly, residents of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Malaysia, Turkey and Iran were more likely to feel that greater interaction between Muslim and Western worlds is a benefit than a threat.
These findings are supported by a 2005-2006 Gallup World Poll which found that Americans favored greater cultural interaction as a way to improve relations with the Muslim world. The same study revealed that the two statements that Muslim-world residents most frequently associate with the Muslim world were: 1) “Attachment to their spiritual and moral values is crucial to progress” and 2) “Eager to have better relations with the West” suggesting that many Muslims do not regard religious devotion and cross-cultural cooperation as mutually exclusive.
(Dalia Mogahed and Ahmed Younis are respectively executive director of and senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. With John L. Esposito, Mogahed co-authored “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think”)
Also Read : What Muslims Think