Rami Khouri
The Daily Star
February 27, 2008 - 6:52pm

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 that will be published in a few weeks titled: "Who Speaks for Islam," by John L. Esposito of Georgetown University and Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

The book analyzes the results of a global survey of 1 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 need for more accuracy and breadth in dealing with the tensions, conflicts, and misperceptions plaguing relations between many in the United States and Muslim-majority societies.

The reasons for my enthusiastic advance praise for this volume are not only the depth of its contents, the clarity of its conclusions, and the fact that it is a fast and absorbing read. The book's primary strength is the sharp insights it offers into the thinking of Muslims around the world, painting a very different view of Muslims and Islam than the one projected in popular culture or public politics in the US.

It has been a painful experience to read this book, chat with the authors, and simultaneously follow political coverage on American television during my current trip to America. President George W. Bush may have cooled down his wild rhetoric about "Islamofascists," but the Republican presidential contender John McCain and others have filled the vacuum with their constant references to Islamic extremism as 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 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 to me: that 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 US, including its democracy, technology and liberty, the same things that Americans say they admire about 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 based on intensive field research, not preconceptions distorted by political violence and 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."

But they added a critical thought: "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 asked about their future dreams usually speak of getting a good job, not 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 for Muslims. Majorities of Muslims want religion to be a source of law, but they do not want religious leaders to play a direct role in governance or crafting constitutions.

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 Muslim 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.


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