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What Muslims Think

New book examines what the more than 1 billion Muslims think about gender, race and terrorism

By Alex Kingsbury

Posted March 14, 2008

Determining what more than 1 billion people think is an ambitious project by any standard. But Georgetown University Prof. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, helped organize just such a survey and managed to condense their findings into a mere 204 pages. Their new book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, is based on a Gallup Poll, the largest of its kind, which surveyed some 50,000 Muslims in more than 35 countries. It asked questions about gender, race, terrorism, the separation of church and state, and the prospects of peace with the West. U.S. News spoke with Mogahed about the findings. Excerpts:

Afghan boys at a Muslim school.

(Shah Maralo/AFP/Getty Images)

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Have we learned more about Muslims than we knew in 2001?
We did a survey of Americans in 2002, asking what they knew about the beliefs and opinions of Muslims around the world. Fifty-four percent said they knew nothing or not much. We asked that same question in 2007, after we've had two wars and a great deal more media coverage of Muslims, and this time 57 percent said they knew nothing or not much. We are no closer to truly understanding this part of the world, even as we are more engaged with it.

Do Muslims misunderstand the West?
Asked what they most admired and most resented about the West, they answered first technology and second, democracy. People would mention their support for freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the transparency of government. What they most disliked was the perceived moral laxity and libertinism of the West, which, interestingly, is exactly what Americans said when we polled them on those two questions. There is common ground on that issue.

Did anyone admire nothing?
Even in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, there were only percentages in the single digits that said they admired nothing about the West. When we asked Americans what they admired about the Muslim world, the most frequent response was "nothing."

How are the antiwestern Muslims different?
Compared with the entire population of Muslims, those who don't condemn the 9/11 attacks are no more likely to say that they are religious. But they are much more likely to say that the United States is not serious about promoting democracy in their part of the world and that the United States will not allow them to fashion their own political future. When we asked their greatest fear, while the general population will talk about personal safety, this radicalized group most fears political domination and occupation. They have a heightened sense of being threatened and dominated by the West. But those same people are also far more likely to say that greater democracy will help Muslims progress. So, they have a greater desire for autonomy and a greater sense that freedom is being denied.

What makes a Muslim radical?
We asked how many people condone the 9/11 attacks and found that the vast majority condemn the attacks; only 7 percent thought it was completely justified. We also asked about attacks on civilians in general, the moral justifiability of sacrificing one's life, and about the moral justifiability of attacking civilians as an individual or as a military. We asked those 7 percent about why they felt the attacks were justified and, surprisingly, not a single one offered a religious justification. Instead, the responses sounded like revolutionaries; they talked about American imperialism. Instead of piety motivating their responses, it was politics.

Seven percent is still some 100 million people.
It is a lot of people, and we have to take them seriously. But they are not hardened terrorists; they are more like the cheering section. For example, they are more likely than the general population to say that relations with the West are of personal concern. They are just more likely to be skeptical of the West's goodwill in return. They just don't think that there is much hope in a diplomatic or peaceful means of change. They've lost faith in the peaceful ability to change things.

What's the American correlation to that?
When we asked Americans, we found that 6 percent thought it was completely justifiable to deliberately target civilians and 24 percent said that bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are often or sometimes justified.

How can we bridge these gaps?
Public diplomacy is important. It's not just about Muslims admiring us and respecting us; what's more important to them is that we admire and respect them. Muslims give us a long list of things they admire about the West, yet when asked what we can do to improve things, they want us to respect them and stop looking down on them. Our public diplomacy needs to move from selling America to affirming other cultures for what they are.

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