Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who Speaks For Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Opinion polls fascinate me. They are, if honestly conducted, perhaps the best possible way to gauge public opinion. At a time when spin is the norm and global media is controlled, manipulated and dictated by powerful cliques, 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 marginalised minorities and dispossessed groups. And of late the Muslims, currently the world’s favourite punching bag, have been at the receiving end.

After the spectacular assassination of Marxism and 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 has been conducted over a period of six years, beginning after the September 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.

And 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 and revealing 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 Middle East and 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, Who Speaks for Islam…, this ostensible conflict between Islam and West is far from inevitable.

Many concerned commentators including this humble hack have repeatedly argued that what is fuelling the so-called clash of civilisations is not some absurd hatred of the Christian West sanctioned by Islam but Western ignorance about Muslims. The poll backs this argument.

A huge majority of Muslims regardless of where they live, whether in Sunni Saudi Arabia or Iran, they are surprisingly well informed about the West, 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 by the Muslims 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 pc of Indonesians, the world’s largest Muslim nation, share this view. In Islamist Iran, the figure is 89 per cent. And in the much-reviled Saudi Arabia, it’s 73 per cent.

A great majority of Muslims also believe a woman can work outside her home in any job for which she is qualified (88 pc in Indonesia, 72 pc in Egypt and even 78 pc in Saudi Arabia). And they also believe women should be able to vote without interference (87 pc in Indonesia, 91 pc in Egypt, 98 pc in Lebanon).

What about the legendary Muslim sympathy for terrorism? While 6 pc of the Americans think attacks involving civilians are ‘completely justified,’ in Saudi Arabia, this figure is 4 pc. In Lebanon and Iran, it’s 2 per cent.

And mark this, it’s important. The majority of Muslims absolutely rejects violence and terrorism. In fact, many of the respondents quoted Quranic verses to point out that extremism goes against Islamic teachings.

Going by these findings, would any reasonable person in his right mind blame Islam of championing extremism and violence? And remember, this survey was not sponsored by Al Jazeera, Bin Laden’s favourite 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 pc 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 were for the West to demonstrate more respect for Islam and to regard Muslims as equals, not as inferior.

The Western contempt for Islam, especially the ignorance of Americans, is not something that is imagined by us. The poll findings speak for themselves.

The majority of Americans (66 pc) 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 neighbour!

Given these views, is it any surprising that Muslims are invariably portrayed in the US media, including that big propaganda machine called Hollywood, as terrorists?

If the Muslims harbour some degree of anti-US sentiment, it’s not because of what the Americans are; it’s 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 most unfortunate and unnatural. Because there is a great deal lot that unites the Muslims and the 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 and positive 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 — notwithstanding what the Bushes and Bin Ladens of this world would have you believe. Which is why this divide is such a tragedy. We Muslims want to bridge this gulf. Is the other side equally willing? (The News International)
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Blogger Loganimal said...

A powerful component that is neglected is the role of governments and leaders in Muslim nations. Given the stringent controls on press and information freedom, most of these biases are perpetuated if not instigated by government leaders to explain or extinguish foreign criticisms of their policies.

For example, an American campaign to protest the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia will be portrayed by local media and leadership as mainly a criticism of culture and religion. This makes it harder for anyone locally to support the campaign, because doing so means opposing your own culture or religion. Labels like "American Devils", "White Infidels" and endearing monickers are created an espoused by these same leaders.
For more examples, see Malaysian politics.

I'm not excusing American foreign policy, or past British/French/Italian colonial policies. But the only way to bridge this divide is to
a) recognize everyone is responsible. There is no "more" or "less" responsible. It's useless to know who's fault it is if you're finding fault in someone else, because that person will just reject it. If you can find the fault in people who will accept it, then that helps because then they can change.
b) not to look at it as a simple us Vs. them. There are more than two sides (just like there are more than 3 races). Identify the extreme, the moderate and the apathetic.
c) focus on the commonalities (as the author did in the last part of his article, too little for my liking though) and use that as a platform to build new relationships.

12:53 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Purple Haze said...

The West may have contempt for Islam because it lacks understanding of some of the tenets of Islam such as

a) There is no freedom to exit Islam
b) The implementation of syariah-based legal processes and remedies is diametrically opposed to Western practices

3:01 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not far-fetched to say that more than 80% of muslims worldwide support the September 11, 2001 sneak attack, as well as the suicide bombings against Jewish/Crusader targets, be they military or civilian.

7:58 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so astonished by the findings of the poll that I bought the book. The poster who said that Sharia law and western law are diametrically opposed is not correct, I think. Sharia is just general principles, anyway,not the actual law, which has another name. It appears to be an orientation not different from any protestant set of ethics--don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't lie. (Muslims are just another heresy, diverging from Catholicism just as protestant sects do.) The penalties for infractions are widely kown as much harsher than western practice but I'm not going to go to war over the stoning of an occasional adulterer, if it comes to that, and according to the poll, it does come to that.

Let me explain that statement. What most commentators pick up on in reporting about the survey is the statement by Muslims that the west does not "respect" them. But when they are asked what they most dislike about the west, they reply the moral decay, the lack of family values. It's like the woman complaining to the marriage counselor that her husband doesn't "respect" her when the real reason is he doesn't pick up his clothes. So we are, in the deepest analysis, in a shooting war over cultural issues. Muslims are so opposed to abortion and homosexuality that they don't need a civil law to deal with it. It simply is totally against and totally unsupported by the culture surrounding it. Am I going to shoot Muslims for that? On the contrary, I applaud them. Muslim women reported to Gallup that they choose to cover themselves well in public and feel freer than western women. Am I going to shoot them for wanting to be modest? Kick them out of school for wanting to cover their hair? On the contrary, I applaud those values, I dress modestly myself, and I resent women who interject sexuality into situations where it is inappropriate--on airplanes, for example, or in the workplace.

You absolutely must listen to the interview on NPR (search for Who Speaks for Islam) or get the book. Everything we thought we were fighting for is not true, and if we are real Christians or especially Catholics, grasp that sometimes enemies of Muslims are our enemies, and champions of abortion and perversion. We must begin to learn all we can, and befriend those particular groups of or individual Muslims who are fighting both internal extremists and external enemies of virtue of any kind. They exist and they could use our support to the degree that we can give it as we both fight terrorism and secular humanism.

7:37 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous SM said...

This debate will go on forever. The West has its own ideals & so do Muslims. Basically they differ & that's why there will be conflict.
Mutual respect & open dialogue may help but then again it may not. Example, how can the West understand the fact that if a Muslim wants to leave his/her Faith, then it's considered punishable by death? And, how can Muslims understand Homosexuality is "no big deal" in the West?
Anonymous 7:37am, Muslim Women are freerer than Western Women? Perhaps you should live & work in Saudi for a while & see if you still believe that.

8:24 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why waste time and money buying this book? Just note the name of the author, Esposito, the Saudi-funded professional whitewasher for Islam, and you'll know the slant of, and agenda behind, this book.

8:32 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does it really matter?
Who gives a shit about all these?
Islam on not ,life will still move on..
Only thing one needs to know is..
there is no compulsion in Islam

10:44 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only thing one needs to know about Anon 10:44 AM is his/her stupidity. How does "no compulsion in Islam" reconcile with the Islamically sanctioned death penalty for apostates, pray tell?

Next amusing nonsensical point, please.

11:23 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talk to the muslims in Turkmenistan
They will tell you there is no compulsion in Islam
If you wish to fast, you then fast
If you want to pray, you then pray
If you want to drink, you can drink
So open up your mindset Anony
Dont live with prejudices lah
Every place practices different brand of Islam.

12:12 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In essence, you say that there is no compulsion in Islam in Turkmenistan, but there is compulsion in the "brands" of Islam practiced in other places. So how can you make the blanket statement that "there is no compulsion in Islam"? Does the name Lina Joy ring a bell? What about Sky Kingdom?

1:08 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeap..there are different brands of Islam
All these compulsions are man made
If there is compulsion then it will be the same everywhere
But it is not!!
It is man that made the rules
And man can also unmake the rules as well

1:33 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha. I see. So Islam is off the hook because there is no compulsion in Islam in theory, even though there is compulsion in Islam in practice. What sort of a stupid argument is that? We live on Earth, in the real world, where Islam is practiced, OK? So when will you slaves of Allah ever get around to correcting that little error of a man-made rule of yours? A year? Two years? Another 1400 years? Never?

3:53 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, guess what? Esposito and Mogahed deliberately under-counted the number of extremists Here is a debunking of their taqqiya. Aijaz Zaka Syed seized on their book uncritically as supporting evidence to downplay Islamic violence. Now that the fraud committed by Esposito and Mogahed has been exposed, anything that cites their book as supporting evidence should not be taken at face value and should be viewed with extreme suspicion, including Aijaz's article.

9:00 AM GMT+8  

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