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 Shia 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 percent.
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 percent.
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?
-Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com