Gallup Poll Lets Muslims Speak for Themselves

Jim Clifton’s ears picked up when he heard Donald Rumsfeld answer the question “Why do they hate us?” with the remark that you can’t do a Gallup poll of Muslims. Clifton is the CEO of that prestigious organization, and he asked his experts if they could do a poll of the Muslim world, and they were sure they could. Clifton thought it was necessary. If Wal-mart assumed their customers were monolithic in their desires, they would go out of business. If America tries to fight extremism among Muslims without understanding the segmentation of perceptions and desires of the Muslim world, they would fail.

The preliminary results will be published in Who Speaks for Muslims?, by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, challenges the prevailing mythology and stereotypes. Yesterday, I heard the two authors summarize the results of what will be an ongoing study.

Esposito expressed enthusiasm that his project would now “Let the data lead the discourse” that had hitherto been dominated by ideology and stereotypes. He noted that the media is concerned with explosive and sensational events and the discussion is politicized. The new study goes beyond that to answer questions like: How widespread is radicalism? How are the radicals different than the mainstream? It turns out that radicals believe even more strongly than moderates in democracy, but are more pessimistic about getting it. They want “neither secularism nor theocracy but democracy with religious values.” Women want “rights with religion.” The majorities of both women and men want equity in the workplace, government, etc.

According the study, alienation from the West is due to political grievances, resentments are over occupation and hegemony. Esposito noted that “Bush talks about military economic and diplomatic” approaches, but “public diplomacy has too often been propaganda.” While Americans don’t want to talk about foreign policy and fear of dependency, those policy issues are what matter to Muslims. Politics is the driver of suicide bombings, Esposito observes, while religion can be used as a mobilizer and legitimizer.

Dalia Mogahed noted the study unveils a “silenced majority.” They polled forty Muslim majority countries as well as countries with significant Muslim minorities, making this the largest and most comprehensive study of world opinion. It was not restricted to easy-to-get-to urban centers. Interviews were oral in order to equally count literate and illiterate subjects and both male and female interviewers were used to avoid cultural obstacles.

It turns out that religion is an important part of life for Muslims in general, with no significant distinction between the radicals and moderates. The distinction between the two groups was based on whether they condoned the 9/11 attacks. The seven percent who did were deemed “politically radicalized.” The overwhelming majority did not condone the attacks.

There was no statistically significant difference in religiosity between the two groups, but there was a telling difference in the reasons given for their position on the defining issue. Those who condemned the 9/11 attacks did so on specifically religious grounds: that the Qur’an forbids killing innocents and that murder is hated by God. Those who condoned the attacks did so on political grounds, charging the American government with imposing dictatorships and occupation on the Muslim world.

Mogahed concluded that “They don’t hate our freedoms,” but envy them. Asked what they admire most about West, Muslims responses technology and democracy/liberty. (Americans gave the same answers, but switched the order). Asked what they would do if asked to draft a constitution for a hypothetical new country both radicals and moderates would include freedom of speech (political, social, economic), freedom of press, and freedom of assembly.

The main complaint against the West is disrespect of Islam. Muslims feel both humiliated and threatened. Moderates talked about the desire for economic development and other help from the West, while the radicalized spoke of the desire to be left alone by the West. Radicals even more lopsidedly disagree that U.S. is not serious about supporting democracy. Both professed concern about better relations, but radicals were more skeptical about Western commitment to positive relations. Religious language is not the differentiator between the two groups, skepticism and a sense of being controlled are. According to the study, terrorist sympathizers don’t hate our freedom, they want our freedom.

The fear of cultural corruption is real, but it does not differentiate between the two groups. It is not what they think of the West but what the West thinks of them. People don’t view the West monolithically. Technology and democracy are most linked with America, so they most admire and are most disappointed by America.

The Palestinian issue was not a differentiator. Mogahed noted that when asked “What do you admire least about the Muslim world,” Muslims answer corruption and intolerance. Esposito added that no religion considers itself intolerant, so this question must be judged by actions and not self-perception.

Mogahed says that people surveyed want the West to get out of the way of the development of indigenous democracy, but they do want technology transfer and economic development. Esposito commented that it’s about “soft power.” They don’t deny they want assistance, but they don’t want control. Majorities see the U.S. as arrogant and dominating. “Perception is reality,” says Esposito, and often is rooted in reality.

In general, support for terrorism is going down, but support for America is not going up. Currently, the researchers have no data for Iraq on this question due to the security situation there. Mogahed said that other polls show a decline in support for terrorism, but one that does not translate into increased support for the U.S. presence.

Interestingly, Americans as people are not perceived as disrespectful of Islam. Mogahed reports that the Muslims surveyed incorrectly believe that the American public opposed the war on Iraq from the beginning, although Esposito adds that some ask, “Why did Americans vote for Bush a second time?”

The need for Muslims to be able to speak for themselves is self-evident. The methodology and the thoughtfulness of the analysis shown by these researchers is most impressive. The fact that Gallup is committed to continuing the work in the future means that we shall be able to discern trends as well as fill in such gaps as Iraq. The Gallup organization is doing a great service to the world.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

Minaret of Freedom Institute






3 responses to “Gallup Poll Lets Muslims Speak for Themselves”

  1. Lou Cantori Avatar
    Lou Cantori

    Thank you very much for the thoughtful summary and your own thoughts as well.


  2. […] of responses show they also reject Bin Laden, and react positively to democracy. Similarly in the Gallup World poll, both radical and moderate respondents had equally positive views of democracy and free speech. The […]

  3. […] of responses show they also reject Bin Laden, and react positively to democracy. Similarly in the Gallup World poll, both radical and moderate respondents had equally positive views of democracy and free speech. The […]

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