Even in the best of times, American popular understanding of Muslims has been informed more by stereotype and suspicion than reality. But since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many perceive the divide between “us” and “them” as a chasm too wide to cross. Anti-American sentiment is up in the Muslim world; and in the West, we have coined a new term, Islamophobia, to describe a growing prejudice.
The distrust has its sources. The spread and frequency of terrorist attacks by an extremist minority, the escalation of hate speech by commentators on both sides of the divide and the rhetoric of political leaders, who speak of an “ideological struggle” between the freedom-loving West and fanatical Islam, have helped foster the view that differences are irreconcilable and all-out war inevitable.
But is it?
No, say John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, authors of Who Speaks for Islam?, a book that persuasively argues policies rather than principles are what divide us. Their work is based on a mammoth, multi-year Gallup research study of the Muslim world. Between 2001 and 2007 the American polling organization surveyed tens of thousands of residents in more than 35 countries, a sampling that represents 90 percent of Islam’s 1.3 billion adherents. Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and founding director of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Under-standing, pored over the Gallup data looking for insights to key questions: What is the root of anti-Americanism? Who are the extremists? Do Muslims desire democracy; and if so, what might it look like? Its five chapters include a basic but invaluable presentation of the main tenets of Islam, followed by substantive analyses of Muslim views of democracy, gender justice and the prospects for co-existence.
The authors supplement Gallup’s data with articles, reports and analyses of recent incidents of “culture clash.” Included here are insightful discussions of the Danish cartoon controversy and Muslim reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regens-berg, Germany, in September 2006. What emerges is a far more nuanced presentation of the Muslim world than our media and pundits provide.
The authors’ intent is to democratize a debate that has been dominated by “extremists” and “experts.” Their data surprises and discourages. Muslim admiration for the West is stronger than presumed, as is American hostility toward Muslims. According to the Gallup survey, “they” don’t hate us for our freedoms. Technology and democracy are at the top of the list for what Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West. By contrast, 57 percent of Americans surveyed could identify no admirable attribute for Muslims; 22 percent said they would not want a Muslim for a next-door neighbor.
Fueling the misconceptions is the tendency to pit a monolithic West—a coherent unit defined by democracy, human rights, gender equality and separation of church and state—against a monolithic Muslim world with starkly different values. But Gallup’s data refutes this reductive view, revealing commonalities between the two worlds as well as the diversity of Muslim perspectives. Like Americans, Muslims believe attacks on civilians are morally unjustified, and they are more likely to condemn them unequivocally. (Forty-six percent of Americans, versus 80 percent of Iranians, think such attacks are “never justified.”) When asked about dreams for the future, Muslims did not mention waging jihad but finding better jobs. As for political aspirations, most Muslims want neither secularism nor a theocracy. They want rights and democratization but also believe society should be based on Islamic values and that shariah (Islamic law) should be a source of law. If this fusion of religion and state worries some, consider that 50 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution should be based on the Bible. How much shariah should inform legislation varies widely among Islamic countries. Some of the book’s most fascinating sections parse these divergent views.
According to Esposito and Mogahed, history and politics, more than religion, explain why democracy has eluded so much of the Muslim world. U.S. policy on democracy in the Middle East resonates with the majority of Muslims surveyed, who say they value greater self-determination. But European colonialism and more recently U.S. intervention in the region, including the occupation of Iraq and the rejection of legitimately elected parties in Palestine, have left many Muslims skeptical of America’s “democratic” agenda.
Skepticism is highest among political radicals—the seven percent of Muslims who said they thought 9/11 was justified. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not illiterate, impoverished or hopeless. Many are highly educated (engineers and physicians), more satisfied than moderates about their financial situations but also more cynical about the United States permitting people “to fashion their own political future.” To diagnose terrorism as a symptom and Islam as the problem, though popular in some circles, is flawed and has serious risks, argue the authors. Such a view alienates the moderates, contributes to the perception that Islam is under siege and obscures evaluation of what really foments the Muslim/West divide. When asked how the West could improve relations with their societies, most Muslims advised showing greater respect for Islam and re-examining our interventionist policies.
Published earlier this year, Who Speaks for Islam? is especially timely now as a corrective to the maligning of Muslims that escalated during the U.S. presidential campaign. Obama-bashing relied heavily on depicting him as a closet Muslim, unworthy of American trust. The book’s approach is ingeniously appropriate for American readers. We are a statistics-obsessed people who look to numbers to inform us about everything from our religious tolerance and psychological health to how much corn we consume. Why not then use polls to determine the view of the other? In this instance, curiosity, that great American virtue, might spare us more misunderstanding and conflict.