|by Rami G. Khouri||Released: 27 Feb 2008|
WASHINGTON, DC -- Every few years a book is published that has the potential to change perceptions of millions of people, and, by doing so, perhaps to change policies of governments for the better. I believe that just such a book is the one being published in a few weeks entitled Who Speaks for Islam, co-authored by John L. Esposito of Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
This book analyzes the results of a global sample survey of one billion Muslims carried out in recent years, representing more than 90 percent of all Muslims in the world. It is published by Gallup Press, and comes out at a time when there is urgent and increasing need for more accuracy and breadth in dealing with the tensions, conflicts and misperceptions that plague relations between many in the United States and Muslim-majority societies.
It has been a painful experience to read this book and chat with the authors, while simultaneously following political coverage on American television during my current trip to the United States. President George W. Bush may have cooled down his wild rhetoric about "Islamofascists," but Republican presidential contender John McCain and others have filled the vacuum with their constant references to Islamic extremism being the threat of the century and the defining issue of our times. Mainstream cable television, local newspapers, and public affairs radio make things even worse by referring to Islam and to Muslims primarily in the context of violence, warfare, fanaticism, or anti-Americanism.
So it is refreshing and useful for more sensible American relations with Muslims and their cultures that this book provides a clear, emphatic antidote to the fear, racism, and anger that still drive many Americans' attitudes to Muslims and Islam. The need to redress the situation of imbalanced and tense US-Islamic relations was most poignantly reflected in a point the authors made when I had a chance to chat with them recently:
When Americans were polled and asked what they admired about Islam, 57 percent said "nothing" or "I don't know," while a majority of Muslims around the world easily named several specific things they admired about the United States, including its democracy, technology and liberty -- the same things that Americans say they admire about their democracy. Muslims listed the key elements of the democracy they desired as freedom of speech, religion and assembly.
The survey and book offer a number of important insights that are based on intensive field research, not preconceptions distorted by political violence, and by politicians who deliberately play on people's fears and ignorance. What was the single most important conclusion the authors drew from their work?
"The conflict between the Muslim and Western communities is far from inevitable. It is more about policy than principles." They add a critical thought, though: "However, until and unless decision-makers listen directly to the people and gain an accurate understanding of this conflict, extremists on all sides will continue to gain ground."
The book is rich in detailed findings and analyses. Here are some of its key conclusions, as summarized by the authors:
Muslims differentiate between different Western countries, criticizing or celebrating them on the basis of their politics, not their religion or culture. The vast majority of Muslims who are asked about their future dreams speak usually of getting a good job, nor engaging in jihad. Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population. What Muslims say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values -- the same responses given by Americans. Muslim women want equal rights and religion in their societies. Muslims are most offended by Western disrespect for Islam and Muslims. Majorities of Muslims want religion to be a source of laws, but they do not want religious leaders to play a direct role in governance or crafting a constitution.
This kind of polling and analysis should be tremendously important for political leaders in both Muslim and Western societies. It sketches the personal values and political sentiments of a vast majority of men and women who can be mobilized on the basis of their real sentiments anchored in justice, democracy, and respect for religious and social norms -- not their imagined adherence to violence and extremism.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri
Released: 27 February 2008
Word Count: 812
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