What you think
you know about them is likely wrong -- and that's dangerous.
By John L.
Esposito and Dalia Mogahed
April 2, 2008
and minds -- the Bush administration, foreign policy wonks, even the U.S.
military agree that this is the key to any victory over global terrorism. Yet
our public diplomacy program has made little progress on improving America's
image. Few seem to recognize that American ignorance of Islam and Muslims has
been the fatal flaw.
How much do Americans know about the views and beliefs of Muslims around the
world? According to polls, not much. Perhaps not surprising, the majority of
Americans (66%) admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims; one in
five say they have "a great deal" of prejudice. Almost half do not
believe American Muslims are "loyal" to this country, and one in four
do not want a Muslim as a neighbor.
Why should such anti-Muslim bias concern us? First, it undermines the war on
terrorism: Situations are misdiagnosed, root causes are misidentified and bad
prescriptions do more harm than good. Second, it makes our public diplomacy
sound like double-talk. U.S. diplomats are trying to convince Muslims around
the world that the United States respects them and that the war on terrorism is
not out to destroy Islam. Their task is made infinitely more difficult by the
frequent airing of anti-Muslim sentiment on right-wing call-in radio, which is
then heard around the world on the Internet.
Finally, public ignorance weakens our democracy at election time. Instead of a
well-informed citizenry choosing our representatives, we are rendered
vulnerable to manipulative fear tactics. We need look no further than the
political attacks on Barack Obama. Any implied connection to Islam -- attending
a Muslim school in Indonesia, the middle name Hussein -- is wielded to suggest
that he is unfit for the presidency and used as fuel for baseless rumors.
Anti-Muslim sentiment fuels misinformation, and is fueled by it --
misinformation that is squarely contradicted by evidence.
Starting in 2001, the research firm Gallup embarked on the largest, most
comprehensive survey of its kind, spending more than six years polling a
population that represented more than 90% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.
The results showed plainly that much of the conventional wisdom about Muslims
-- views touted by U.S. policymakers and pundits and accepted by voters -- is
For instance, Gallup found that 72% of Americans disagreed with this statement:
"The majority of those living in Muslim countries thought men and women
should have equal rights." In fact, majorities in even some of the most
conservative Muslim societies directly refute this assessment: 73% of Saudis,
89% of Iranians and 94% of Indonesians say that men and women should have equal
legal rights. Majorities of Muslim men and women in dozens of countries around
the world also believe that a woman should have the right to work outside the
home at any job for which she is qualified (88% in Indonesia, 72% in Egypt and
even 78% in Saudi Arabia), and to vote without interference from family members
(87% in Indonesia, 91% in Egypt, 98% in Lebanon).
What about Muslim sympathy for terrorism? Many charge that Islam encourages
violence more than other faiths, but studies show that Muslims around the world
are at least as likely as Americans to condemn attacks on civilians. Polls show
that 6% of the American public thinks attacks in which civilians are targets
are "completely justified." In Saudi Arabia, this figure is 4%. In
Lebanon and Iran, it's 2%.
Moreover, it's politics, not piety, that drives the small minority -- just 7%
-- of Muslims to anti-Americanism at the level of condoning the attacks of
9/11. Looking across majority-Muslim countries, Gallup found no statistical
difference in self-reported religiosity between those who sympathized with the
attackers and those who did not. When respondents in select countries were
asked in an open-ended question to explain their views of 9/11, those who
condemned it cited humanitarian as well as religious reasons. For example, 20%
of Kuwaitis who called the attacks "completely unjustified" explained
this position by saying that terrorism was against the teachings of Islam. A
respondent in Indonesia went so far as to quote a direct verse from the Koran
prohibiting killing innocents. On the other hand, not a single respondent who
condoned the attacks used the Koran as justification. Instead, they relied on
political rationalizations, calling the U.S. an imperialist power or accusing
it of wanting to control the world.
If most Muslims truly reject terrorism, why does it continue to flourish in
Muslim lands? What these results indicate is that terrorism is much like other
violent crime. Violent crimes occur throughout U.S. cities, but that is no
indication of Americans' general acceptance of murder or assault. Likewise,
continued terrorist violence is not proof that Muslims tolerate it. Indeed,
they are its primary victims.
Still, the typical American cannot be blamed for these misperceptions.
Media-content analyses show that the majority of U.S. TV news coverage of Islam
is sharply negative. Americans are bombarded every day with news stories about
Muslims and majority-Muslim countries in which vocal extremists, not evidence,
Rather than allow extremists on either side to dictate how we discuss Islam and
the West, we need to listen carefully to the voices of ordinary people. Our
victory in the war on terrorism depends on it.
John L. Esposito is an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University.
Dalia Mogahed is executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup.
They co-wrote "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really