Vol. 3    Issue 07   16-31 August 2008
About Us
Back Issues
Forthcoming Issues
Print Edition
Contact Us
IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

A Breath of Fresh Air

Professor A. R. Momin

Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, edited by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), 204 pp.

The perception of Islam and Muslims in the West is surrounded by prejudice, demeaning stereotypes and gross misrepresentation. There is a widespread belief across the Western world that the Islamic faith is a breeding ground for intolerance, fanaticism and aggression, that it is inimical to democracy, modernity and gender justice, that Muslims pose a serious threat to the stability, well-being and prosperity of Western nations. Islam and Muslims are invariably equated with global terrorism.

Certain events in recent years, including the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Madrid train bombing in 2004, the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, the terrorist attacks on London’s public transport system in July 2005 and the fallout of the controversial publication of Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons in 2006 have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiments in Western countries and have widened the gulf between the Islamic world and the West.

The undercurrents of mistrust and hostility against Muslims run deep across large parts of the Western world. They are manifested in the increasing demonization of Muslims by the media, the far-right political parties and racist outfits, in protests against the construction of mosques (especially those with minarets), in attacks on mosques and prayer halls, in the desecration of cemeteries, in abuses and assaults on Muslims, and in the slur on the Islamic headscarf.

Far-right political parties and racist and neo-Nazi outfits in many European countries have been carrying out a vicious campaign against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Geert Wilders, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party in the Netherlands, makes no secret of his hatred for immigrants, especially Muslims. He calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture”. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, claiming that the Quran is incompatible with Dutch values, and telling Dutch Muslims that if they wish to stay on in the country, they should tear up half of their holy book. He has demanded a ban on the Quran in the Netherlands. Wilders says that Europe is in danger of being “Islamised” and that there will soon be more mosques than churches in the country. Wilders has produced a 10-minute provocative film—which was banned by the Dutch government—denouncing the Quran and Islam. He said his film shows how the Quran is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror”.

Norway’s far-right Kristisand Progress Party declares that Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Quran are one and the same and wants Islam banned in the country. Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right British National Party, described Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith” in 2006 and got away with it because, under British law, it is not an offence to denounce and slander any religion (except Anglican Christianity, which is the country’s established religion). Susanne Winter, a leader of Austria’s far-right FPO Party, while campaigning for the Graz City Council elections in January 2008, said that (Prophet) Muhammad wrote the Quran in “epileptic fits”.

Prominent leaders of the Christian Right in the US often denigrate and demonize Islam. In late 2001, Franklin Graham, the Rev Billy Graham’s son and successor, described Islam on BBC News as “very evil and very wicked religion”. In September 2002, televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition, the Rev Pat Robertson, called Prophet Muhammad “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic….a robber and brigand….a killer”. A Catholic bishop said that a wave of petrodollars is fueling a wave of “Muslim reconquest of Europe”.

Gallup poll

Gallup, a well-known poll organisation based in Washington, DC, specialises in the analysis of worldwide Muslim opinion, gleaned from the annual Gallup World Poll which poses wide-ranging questions to respondents in over 140 countries. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted several thousand long face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 countries that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations. The sample represented more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, comprising the young and the old, men and women, educated and illiterate, city dwellers and villagers. The questions focused on the perception of the West in the Islamic world, extremist elements among Muslims, democracy, terrorism and the perception of women.

This book brings together the major conclusions of the Gallup polls. John L. Esposito is a well-known expert on the Muslim world. He is a professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University in the US and the founding director of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Dalia Mogahed is a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies in Washington, DC.

The editors supplement the Gallup data with useful supportive material gleaned from researches, other surveys and media reports. In the opening part of the book, they provide an overview of the wide-ranging diversities that characterize Muslim peoples around the world in respect of national affiliation, ethnic and cultural distinctions, ideological and sectarian differences, variations in economic and political development, and differences in the position and role of women. Such an overview is helpful and necessary in order to counter the widely prevalent tendency in the West to portray Muslims as a homogeneous, monolithic population and to indulge in sweeping, facile generalizations about them.

Do Muslims hate the West?

In his address to Congress shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush said that what enraged America’s enemies was its tradition of liberty, its freedom of religion, assembly, election and open disagreement. In an article “Their Target: The Modern World”, published in Newsweek on December 17, 2001, Francis Fukuyama said that the September 11 attacks represented a desperate backlash against the modern world. “Islam is the one major world culture that arguably does have some very basic problems with modernity”, he wrote. He spoke of Islamo-fascism and said that “the Islamo-fascist sea within which the terrorists swim constitutes an ideological challenge that is in some ways more basic than the one posed by communism”.

The same issue of Newsweek carried an article by Samuel P. Huntington entitled “The Age of Muslim Wars”. Huntington wrote that contemporary global politics represents the age of Muslim wars, adding that Muslims fight non-Muslims far more often than do people of other civilizations. Muslim wars, he said, have replaced the cold war as the principal form of international conflict and these wars “could congeal into one major clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or between Islam and the Rest”.

The Gallup data show that Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or appreciate Western countries on the basis of their politics and foreign policies, rather than on that of their culture or religion. The vast majority of Muslims said in the survey that they admired many things about the West, including its democratic system and rule of law, technology, political freedom, the ethic of hard work and self responsibility, cooperation, freedom of speech, gender equality and respect for women’s rights (p. 80).

At the same time, Muslims resent the West’s disrespect and denigration of Islam and Muslims (pp. 61, 86-87). A majority of Muslims believe that is the West is antagonistic towards Islam and Muslims (p. 62). They resent Western interference in their internal matters and attempts at controlling their natural resources. A major concern in the Islamic world is that the West is not really interested in Muslim self-determination, but instead desires to bolster authoritarian regimes (p. 164).

The data show that what Muslims expect from the West is not that people in the West should change their values and lifestyles, but to respect Islam and Muslims and to make modifications in certain aspects of their foreign policy (p.89). Most respondents believed that in order to improve relations with the Muslim world, the West needs to demonstrate more understanding and respect for Islam as a religion (p. 61). The editors point out that the most important finding of the survey was that the conflict between the West and Muslims is far from inevitable (contrary to Huntington’s cynical assertion). The conflict is more about policy than about principles (p. xi).

Muslim perception of the US

The Gallup data clearly suggest that the majority of people in the Muslim world are sceptical about the seriousness of the US in encouraging the establishment of democratic systems of government in the Middle East. There is a widespread feeling in the Muslim world that the US indulges in double standards in its self-styled promotion of democracy. Muslim attitudes towards the US have been affected by America’s double standards in promoting democracy in the Islamic world, its long track record of supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and its failure to promote democratic systems of government in the Muslim world (p. 58).

In a major policy address in 2002, Richard Haas, a former senior State Department official in the Bush administration, remarked that before the invasion of Iraq, both the Democratic and Republican administrations practised “democratic exceptionalism” in the Muslim world: subordinating democracy to other national interests such as accessing oil, containing the Soviet Union and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict (p. 58).

Muslim cynicism about the US has been further reinforced by the use of “creating democracy” as a retroactive rationale for invading Iraq only after weapons of mass destruction in that country did not materialise, by imposing its own version of democracy through its puppets (Ahmed Chalabi in the case of Iraq), by the trail of human rights abuses from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, and by the refusal of the US (and European countries) to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine (p. 59).

Feelings of resentment over the double standards adopted by the US and its allies in the Middle East run deep in the Muslim world. Saleh Bayeri, a Muslim politician and community leader in Nigeria, says, “Whenever the Israelis strike the Palestinians, the international community and the UN turn a blind eye or keep quiet, but when the Palestinians launch a counter-attack, it is condemned by America, the UK and other friends of Israel as a terror attack. That is the problem. It shows that the West is biased in dealing with Muslims” (pp. 83-84).

The Gallup survey shows that substantial majorities in many Muslim countries feel that the goal of the US is to “weaken and divide the Islamic world”. The data demonstrate that the primary cause of anger and anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is not a clash of civilizations but the perceived effect of US foreign policy in the Muslim world (p. 156). Only a small percentage of the respondents (5 to 10%) believe that the US is trustworthy, friendly or treats other countries respectfully (p. 62). Most respondents asserted that the US should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Arab and Muslim countries, stop imposing its beliefs and policies on them and respect their political rights (pp. 61-62).

Significantly, while over two-thirds of the respondents described America as aggressive, less than 10% of them felt the same about France and Germany. Western European nations share most of the Muslim world’s negative perception of US leadership: 68% of Germans, 67% of French and even 52% of Britons disapprove of US leadership (p. 153). In a recent survey for the opinion pollsters Forsa, the majority of respondents in Germany deem George W. Bush to be the biggest single threat to world peace.

The Gallup data about the negative image of the US in the Muslim world are supported by other surveys as well. A 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey, for example, found that America’s standing in the Muslim world was “abysmal”. A poll by Zogby International of 4,000 people in six Arab countries—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—found that rising numbers of respondents (over 60%) had a “very unfavourable “ view of the US (The Economist, July 19-25, 2008).

Islam, democracy and human rights

Islam constitutes the core component of a Muslim’s identity. The Gallup survey found that substantial majorities in all Muslim countries regard the Islamic faith as an important part of their lives and consider attachment to their spiritual and moral values critical to their progress (p. 113).

A large majority of Muslims around the world attach equal importance to Islam and democracy and consider them essential to the quality of their lives and to the future progress of the Muslim world (p. 35). The editors quote a Muslim writer, Sheikha Sajida, who said, “Islam advocates justice and I see no conflict between Islamic law and human rights. On the contrary, applying Islamic law in Muslim states safeguards human rights against the oppression of some of the Arab rulers who are only focused on how to use their influence to the utmost before they lose the throne” (p. 36).

While Muslims admire many aspects of Western democracy, those surveyed do not favour a wholesale adoption of Western models of democracy (pp. 47-48). They favour a model of democracy that is infused with Islamic values. The data demonstrate a broad-based desire for greater political participation, democratization, government accountability and the rule of law. Substantial majorities in nearly all Muslim countries said that while drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social and economic issues of the day” (p. 47).

There is an increasing yearning among the Muslim masses for democratic participation and freedom. Two recent World Values surveys conducted in 1995-96 and 2000-2002, based on questionnaires that explore values and beliefs in more than 70 countries, indicate that most of the Muslim countries surveyed think highly of democracy. In fact, in Albania, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Morocco and Turkey, 92 to 99 per cent of the population endorsed democratic institutions—a higher proportion than in the US (89 per cent).


The majority of Muslim respondents said that terrorist attacks are never unjustified (p. 95). Esposito and Mogahed emphasize that 9 out of 10 Muslims are moderates and only about 7% harbour radical views. They point out that diagnosing terrorism as a symptom and Islam as the problem, though popular in some circles, is flawed and has serious risks with dangerous repercussions. It confirms radical beliefs and fears, alienates the moderate Muslim majority, and reinforces the belief that the war against terrorism is really a war against Islam (p. 96).

This wonderful and refreshing book will hopefully lift the mist of misunderstanding, mistrust and misrepresentation that currently surrounds the Muslim community in large parts of the world, especially in the West. Gallup and the editors deserve our compliments for this commendable attempt to build bridges between Muslims and the West.

Name * :
E-mail * :
Add Your Comment :
Home About Us Announcement Forthcoming Features Feed Back Contact Us
Copyright © 2008 All rights reserved.