Rethinking secularism:

Who speaks for Islam?

posted by John L. Esposito

whospeaksforislam.jpgThe politicization of scholars, experts and media commentators post 9/11 has created a minefield for policymakers and the general public. Many are caught between the contending positions of seemingly qualified experts as well as a new cadre of Islamophobic authors and their revisionist readings of Islam and Islamic history. Today, we now have a new empirically grounded tool that enables us to go beyond the limited interpretations and opinions of experts when asking: What do Muslims think, what do they care about, and what do they want?

The Gallup Organization has produced the largest, most comprehensive polling/study of Muslims ever done, based on a sample representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims: young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, living in urban and rural settings. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted more than 50,000 hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 40 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations.

The result is the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, which I co-authored with Dalia Mogahed, Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. The results are often startling, challenging the conventional wisdom, and we expect them to stir both interest and debate.

How widespread is political radicalism?

The key question asked to demarcate moderates from the politically radicalized was whether the 9/11 attacks were completely justified and whether they have an unfavorable or favorable view of the United States. The vast majority, moderates, said the 9/11 attacks were unjustified. A significant minority, politically radicalized and thus potential supporters of extremism – 7% – said the attacks were completely justified and view the United States unfavorably. Identification as “politically radicalized” does not mean they commit acts of violence but that they are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups.

Defying the conventional wisdom, the politically radicalized are no more religious than moderates and on average more educated and affluent than moderates. Larger percentages of politically radicalized than moderates respond that they are more satisfied with their financial situation, standard of living, and quality of life, with 64% of the politically radicalized vs. 55 % of moderates believing their standard of living is getting better. They are also, on average, more optimistic about their personal future than moderates, more optimistic about their own lives. However, the politically radicalized are more concerned and pessimistic about world affairs and international politics regarding issues like U.S. hegemony, invasion, and dependency. Responding to an open-ended question, politically radicalized frequently cite “occupation/U.S. domination” as their biggest fear, while moderates most often mention economic problems.

Why do they hate us?

The question “Why do they hate us?” raised in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 continues to looms large in Western minds following continued terrorist attacks in Europe and the Muslim world and the dramatic growth of anti-Americanism. A common answer has been, “They hate our way of life, our freedom, democracy, and success.”

While many believe anti-Americanism is tied to deep West-East religious and cultural differences, the data contradict these views. When asked what they admired most about the West, many Muslims — both politically radicalized and moderates — say they admire the West’s technology, freedom of speech, and value system of hard work. In contrast, 57% of Americans when asked what they most admire about Muslim societies offer two responses: “Nothing” and “I don’t know.”

Even more surprising, the politically radicalized are more likely than moderates to associate Arab/Islamic nations with an eagerness to have better relationships with the West: Fifty-eight percent of the politically radicalized (versus 44% of moderates) expressed this.

Finally, no significant difference exists between the percentage of the politically radicalized and moderates who said: “better understanding between the West and Arab/Islamic cultures concerns me a lot.”

Although many in the West believe that anti-Americanism is tethered to a basic hatred of the West, respondents’ assessments of individual Western countries reveal a different picture. Unfavorable opinions of the United States or Great Britain do not preclude a favorable attitude toward other Western countries such as France or Germany. Across all predominantly Muslim countries polled, an average of 75% associate “ruthless” with the United States (in contrast to only 13% for France and 13% for Germany).

Unfavorable opinions of Western heads of state also vary significantly. Ninety percent of the politically radicalized and 62% of moderates express absolute dislike for George W. Bush; 70% of the politically radicalized and 43% of moderates do not like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair “at all.” That level of dislike does not extend to other Western leaders. For example, dislike of former French President Jacques Chirac is significantly lower: 39% among the politically radicalized and 24% among moderates.

What about Sharia and Democracy?

Few issues crystallize “the problem” with Islam more than the Sharia, regarded by a significant minority of Muslim women and many non-Muslims as an oppressive corpus of law opposed to basic liberties and human rights. Surprisingly, however different and diverse Muslim populations may be, for many Sharia is central to faith and identity.

Gallup data shows that majorities in most countries, with the exception of a handful of nations, want Sharia as at least “a” source of legislation. And at the same time, a majority also supports freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly. The majority of those surveyed also support a woman’s right to vote, drive and work outside the home. Majorities in every nation surveyed, save for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, also believe it appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government in their nation’s Cabinet and National Council (and even in Saudi Arabia, 40% of all adults subscribe to this view).

While the conventional wisdom in the West has been that democracy requires secularism, separation of church and state, the desired Muslim model is neither a theocracy nor a secular democracy but rather a model that integrates faith and democratic values; more specifically the data show that a majority want a system of government that combines democracy and faith/with religious values. Of course, what respondents mean by Sharia can vary widely from no law that contradicts Sharia to laws based on Sharia.

While the spread of democracy has been the stated goal of the U.S. government, majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco disagreed that the United States is serious about spreading democracy in their region of the world. For the politically radicalized, their fear of Western control and domination, as well as their lack of self-determination, reinforce their sense of powerlessness. Thus, a belief has developed among the politically radicalized that they must dedicate themselves to changing an untenable situation.

How to improve relations?

When asked how the West could improve relations with the Muslim world, the most often offered response was: respect Islam, stop treating us like we’re inferior, stop degrading Muslims in your media — as well as a desire for assistance with technology, jobs and economic development.

The politically radicalized (40%) are far more likely than moderates (20%) to say Western societies do not show any concern for better co-existence with the Arab-Muslim world. Yet, the politically radicalized (37%) are also far more likely than moderates (20%) to feel the time for a better understanding between the West and the Arab/Muslim world probably will never come.
Americans, like the vast majority in the Muslim world, share a fundamental aversion to extremism. Asked what they admire least about the Muslim world, Americans said overwhelmingly “extremism/radicalism/not open to others’ ideas.” Likewise, when asked what they admired least about their own societies, Muslims’ top concerns included extremism and terrorism. The “terrorist fringe,” far from being glorified, is rejected by citizens of predominantly Muslim countries just as it is by citizens in the United States.

The good news is that 9 out of 10 Muslims are moderates, another piece of good news for those optimistic about coexistence. However, if the 7 percent (91 million) of 1.3 billion Muslims today worldwide are politically radicalized and they continue to feel politically dominated, occupied and disrespected, the West’s opportunity to address these drivers of extremism will be as great as the challenge of succeeding.

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