By John Esposito

DESPITE THE EXPLOSION of media coverage and publications on Islam and Muslims , a major challenge today involves getting accurate information. The politicization of scholars, experts and media commentators post 9/11 has created a minefield for policymakers and the general public as they search for answers to questions like: “What are the causes of radicalism and anti-Americanism?”, “Why do they hate us?”, “What do Muslim women think about their status in Islam?”, “Is Islam compatible with democracy?”, “What are the causes of global terrorism?” and so many others. Too often, a reader is caught between the contending positions of seemingly qualified experts as well as a new cadre of Islamophobic authors who engage in a revisionist reading of Islam and Islamic history. So, what are we to do? Suddenly a new empirically grounded tool emerged to get us beyond the limited interpretations and opinions of experts when answering the question: What do Muslims think and what do they care about?

More than a year ago, I was asked by Gallup to be a senior scientist for the Gallup World Poll. To my astonishment I discovered a plan not only to poll 95 percent of world’s population, but to also focus on the Muslim world. In terms of the Muslim world, between 2001 and 2007, Gallup had conducted tens of thousands of hourlong, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations. A sample representing more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, living in urban and rural settings, makes this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done. Gallup posed questions on the minds of millions of people: Is Islam to blame for terrorism? Why is there so much anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? Who are the extremists? Where are the moderates? What do Muslim women really want? And many, many more.

The result is the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, which I co-authored with Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. It is a book that enables the voices of the silenced majority in the Muslim world to be heard. The results are often startling; they challenge the conventional wisdom, and we expect them to stir both interest and debate. Below is a look at some of the more salient findings.


Given the seemingly global presence and threat of extremism and terrorism, a basic question is how widespread is political radicalism, and thus the potential pool of extremism. The key questions asked to demarcate moderates from the politically radicalized was whether the 9/11 attacks were completely justified and whether they have an unfavorable or favorable view of the United States. Respondents were then categorized as moderate or politically radicalized:

1. Moderate – the vast majority who said the 9/11 attacks were unjustified

2. Politically radicalized and thus potential supporters of extremism – 7 percent – who said the attacks were completely justified and view the United States unfavorably.

Identification as “politically radicalized” does not mean they commit acts of violence but that they are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups. The intensity of their commitment to changing political situations makes them more likely to view other civilian attacks as justifiable.

Where relevant subsequent responses to additional questions (attitudes towards the West, democracy, etc.) were broken out or assessed in terms of these categories.

Defying the conventional wisdom about the drivers of Islamic extremism, both moderates and politically radicalized have similarly strong religious sentiments, as measured by frequency of religious service attendance and affirmation that religion is an important part of their lives. The politically radicalized are on average more educated and affluent than moderates; convey a more intense sense of being “dominated” or even “occupied” by the West. Responding to an open-ended question, politically radicalized frequently cite “occupation/US domination” as their biggest fear, while moderates most often mention economic problems.


The conventional wisdom and intuitive sense of many has been that extremism and terrorism are driven by profound psychological, economic, political or religious problems: deranged, social misfits, unemployed, poorly educated, reject democracy and modernization, religious fanatics or zealots.

Thus, there has often been a reluctance to see extremists as otherwise intelligent, rational people responding to perceived grievances. Within weeks after 9/11, the media reported the “stunning discovery” that the attackers were not from the poor, unemployed and dispossessed.

Comparing the political radicals who justify 9/11 and are anti-US with the moderate majority produces some surprising results. Political radicals are younger but not substantially. Forty-nine percent are between the ages of 18-29 while 41 percent of those with moderate views are between the same age range. Contrary to what some might expect, while the politically radicalized are more likely to be male (62 percent), 37 percent are female.
The politically radicalized, on average, are more educated than moderates: 67 percent of those with extremist views have secondary or higher educations (versus 52 percent of moderates). They are also more likely to report average or above-average income: 65 percent of the politically radicalized say they have average or above-average income versus 55 percent of moderates.

While unemployment, like poverty, is a major social problem in many Muslim countries, neither unemployment nor job status differentiate the politically radicalized from moderates. No difference exists in the unemployment rate among politically radicalized and moderates. Among those who are employed, the politically radicalized hold jobs with greater responsibility. They are not more “hopeless” than the mainstream. Larger percentages of politically radicalized than moderates respond that they are more satisfied with their financial situation, standard of living and quality of life, with 64 percent of the politically radicalized versus 55 percent of moderates believing their standard of living is getting better. The politically radicalized are also, on average, more optimistic about their personal future than moderates, more optimistic about their own lives. However, they are more concerned and pessimistic about world affairs and international politics regarding issues like US hegemony, invasion and dependency.
Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the politically radicalized compared to 48 percent of moderates disagree that “the US will allow people in the region to ‘fashion their own political future as they see fit without direct US influence’.” Surprisingly, 50 percent of the politically radicalized feel more strongly that their progress will be helped by “moving toward governmental democracy” compared to 35 percent of moderates.


The question “Why do they hate us?” raised in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 continues to loom large in Western minds following continued terrorist attacks in Europe and the Muslim world and the dramatic growth of anti-Americanism. A common answer has been, “They hate our way of life, our freedom, democracy, and success.” Is there a blind hatred of the United States?

Although the Muslim world expresses many common grievances, do the politically radicalized and moderates differ in attitudes about the West?

While many believe anti-Americanism is tied to deep West-East religious and cultural differences, the data contradict these views. When asked what they admired most about the West, many Muslims – both politically radicalized and moderates – say they admire the West’s technology, freedom of speech, and value system of hard work. In contrast, 57 percent of Americans when asked what they most admire about Muslim societies offer two responses: “Nothing” and “I don’t know.”

And even more surprising, the politically radicalized are more likely than moderates to associate Arab/Islamic nations with an eagerness to have better relationships with the West: Fifty-eight percent of the politically radicalized (versus 44 percent of moderates) expressed this.

Finally, no significant difference exists between the percentage of the politically radicalized and moderates who said: “better understanding between the West and Arab/Islamic cultures concerns me a lot.”

Although many in the West believe that anti-Americanism is tethered to a basic hatred of the West, respondents’ assessments of individual Western countries reveal a different picture. Unfavorable opinions of the United States or Great Britain do not preclude a favorable attitude toward other Western countries such as France or Germany. Across all predominantly Muslim countries polled, an average of 75 percent associate “ruthless” with the United States (in contrast to only 13 percent for France and 13 percent for Germany).

The politically radicalized are consistently more negative than are moderates in their opinions of all Western countries tested in the survey. However, there is a stark contrast in their view of individual Western nations. Even those who are politically radicalized consistently differentiate between countries and leaders and do not see a monolithic West. For example, while only a quarter of the politically radicalized have very unfavorable opinions of France (25 percent) and Germany (26 percent), this percentage jumps to 68 percent for Britain and 84 percent for the United States.

Unfavorable opinions of Western heads of state also vary significantly. Ninety percent of the politically radicalized and 62 percent of moderates express absolute dislike for George W Bush; 70 percent of the politically radicalized and 43 percent of moderates do not like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair “at all”. That level of dislike does not extend to other Western leaders. For example, dislike of former French President Jacques Chirac is significantly lower: 39 percent among the politically radicalized and 24 percent among moderates.


Few issues crystallize “the problem” with Islam than the Shari’a, regarded by a significant minority of Muslim women and many non-Muslims as an oppressive corpus of law only supported by conservative religious leaders and extremists, who oppose basic liberties and human rights for Muslims and non-Muslims including women’s rights. However, for the majority of Muslims, the Shari’a is considered the blueprint for an Islamic society, providing a centuries-old paradigm. Thus, however different and diverse Muslim populations may be, for many Shari’a is central to faith and identity.
Gallup data shows that majorities in most countries, with the exception of a handful of nations, want Shari’a as at least “a” source of legislation. And at the same time, a majority also supports freedoms of religion, speech and assembly. The majority of those surveyed also support a woman’s right to vote, drive and work outside the home. Majorities in every nation surveyed, save for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, also believe it appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government in their nation’s Cabinet and National Council (and even in Saudi Arabia, 40 percent of all adults subscribe to this view).


Is the conclusion: “If Muslims don’t want to totally separate Shari’a and state, they want a medieval style theocracy where religious leaders have absolute power” correct? While the conventional wisdom in the West has been that democracy requires secularism, separation of church and state, the desired Muslim model is neither a theocracy nor a secular democracy but rather a model that integrates faith and democratic values; more specifically the data show that a majority want a system of government that combines democracy and faith/Shari’a. Of course, what respondents mean by Shari’a can vary widely from no law that contradicts Shari’ a to laws based on Shari’a.
Responses to the Gallup Poll indicate that wanting Shari’a does not automatically translate into wanting theocracy. Significant majorities in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a country’s constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women dress in public or what is televised or published in newspapers. Others who did opt for a direct role tended to stipulate that religious leaders should only serve in an advisory capacity to government officials.

While the spread of democracy has been the stated goal of the US government, majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Morocco disagreed that the United States is serious about spreading democracy in their region of the world. For the politically radicalized, their fear of Western control and domination, as well as their lack of self-determination, reinforce their sense of powerlessness. Thus, a belief has developed among the politically radicalized that they must dedicate themselves to changing an untenable situation.


Issues of religious identity are very important to both politically radicalized and moderates. The most frequent response to what they admire most about themselves was “faithfulness to their religious beliefs” and the top statement they associate with Arab/Muslim nations is “attachment to their spiritual and moral values is critical to their progress”.

However, what distinguishes the politically radicalized from moderates is their greater emphasis on their spiritual and moral values. In contrast to less than half (45 percent) the moderate group, roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of the politically radicalized give top priority to holding onto their spiritual and moral values as something that is critical to their progress. The politically radicalized also, in significantly higher percentages, emphasize preservation of their culture, traditions and principles as well as their holy places and Islamic values as admirable aspects of the Islamic world. Belief in the Islamic heritage, which is critical to their progress, is also perceived to be in danger of being weakened by the West’s denigration of Islam and perception of Arabs and Muslims as inferior.

Only 12 percent of the politically radicalized and 17 percent of moderates associate “respecting Islamic values” with Western nations. For both groups, the West’s “Disrespect for Islam” ranks high on the list of what they most resent. Therefore, as one might expect, when asked what the Arab/Muslim world could do to improve relations with Western societies, the top response from both the politically radicalized and moderates who offered a response was “improve the presentation of Islam to the West, present Islamic values in a positive manner”.

The sense of threat to cultural identity is enhanced by a predominant feeling that a secular and powerful West that does not share its values is overwhelming the Muslim world. When asked the open-ended question, “In your own words, what do you resent most about the West?”, the most frequent response across all countries for both moderates and politically radicalized was “sexual and cultural promiscuity”; followed by “ethical and moral corruption” and “hatred of Muslims”.

Another source of resentment comes from the depiction of Muslims in Western media. A survey by Jack Shaheen in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, found that the vast majority of Arab characters in 900 American films were outright racist caricatures. Images of ordinary Muslims and Muslim cultures in a Western mass media that is distributed globally are almost nonexistent or distorted. Moreover, Western TV programs and films that are most popular in the Muslim world encourage a superficial emulation of Western fashions, personalities and values.


A primary catalyst or driver of extremism, often seen as inseparable from the threat to Muslim religious and cultural identity, is the threat of political domination and occupation. The interplay of the political and religious is strongly reflected in radical and moderate responses to open-ended questions like, “What can the West do to improve relations with the Muslim world?” and, “What is the most important thing the United States could do to improve the quality of life of people like you in this country?” Given what they admire about themselves and resent about the West, answers to these questions paint a consistent picture: Reflecting the importance of Islam, the most frequent response given by both groups was: more respect, consideration and understanding of Islam as a religion; not underestimating the status of Arab/Muslim countries; being fair and less prejudiced. In addition, reflecting the priority they give to democracy, the politically radicalized give equal importance to the need for political independence. Their responses include: stop interfering; meddling in our internal affairs; colonizing; and controlling natural resources.

A significantly greater proportion of politically radicalized than moderates cite Western cultural penetration, Western immorality and moral corruption as the top reasons for resentment. Politically radicalized were far more intense in their belief that Western political, military and cultural domination is a major threat. When asked to define their greatest fears about the future of their country, the politically radicalized most frequently cite interference in their internal affairs by other countries, national security, colonization, occupation and fear of US dominance. In contrast, moderates rank economic problems as their top concern.

Even more stunning, but consistent with their responses to other questions, is the quality mentioned earlier, the commitment of radicals to sacrifice to promote change. Fully half said that to “give one’s life for a cause, to fight against injustice” is “completely justifiable”. This contrasts with only 18 percent of moderates.

Although both groups are concerned about bias and Western political interference in their affairs, the greater intensity and fear expressed by the politically radicalized predisposed them to have a more sympathetic ear for terrorists if their grievances are not addressed.

The heightened sense of the West’s threat to political freedom and to Islamic identity has reinforced the politically radicalized’s desire for Islamic law. While both moderates (83 percent) and politically radicalized (91 percent) want Shari’a as a source of law, a significantly higher percentage of politically radicalized (59 percent vs. 32 percent of moderates) want to see Shari’a as the only source of law. This may reflect their desire to limit the power of rulers and regimes that they regard as authoritarian, “un-Islamic” and corrupt.

One of the most important insights provided by Gallup’s data is that the issues that drive the politically radicalized are also issues for moderates. The critical difference between these two outlooks is one of prioritization, intensity of feeling, degree of politicization and alienation.


If, as conventional wisdom often indicates, the heart of Muslim resentment is an envy of our success, wealth and prosperity, they hate us for what we have, not what we do, then does it mean that what Muslims really want to “improve relations” with the West is for the West to provide economic support?

When asked how the West could improve relations with the Muslim world, the most often offered response was: respect Islam, stop treating us like we’re inferior, stop degrading Muslims in your media as well as a desire for assistance with technology, jobs and economic development.

The politically radicalized (40 percent) are far more likely than moderates (20 percent) to say Western societies do not show any concern for better coexistence with the Arab-Muslim world. The politically radicalized (37 percent) are also far more likely than moderates (20 percent) to feel the time for a better understanding between the West and the Arab/Muslim world probably will never come.

Americans, like the vast majority in the Muslim world, share a fundamental aversion to extremism. Asked what they admire least about the Muslim world, Americans said overwhelmingly “extremism/radicalism/not open to others’ ideas”. Likewise, when asked what they admired least about their own societies, Muslims’ top concerns included extremism and terrorism. This should not be surprising if we recall that the primary victims of Muslim extremism and terrorism have been Muslims. The “terrorist fringe”, far from being glorified, is rejected by citizens of predominantly Muslim countries just as it is by citizens in the United States.


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 extremist beliefs and fears, alienates the moderate Muslim majority, and reinforces a belief that the war against global terrorism is really war against Islam. Whether one is radical or moderate, this negative attitude is a widespread perception.

The good news is that Americans and Muslims throughout the world have a fundamental aversion to extremism and terrorism. In addition, 9 out of 10 Muslims are moderates, another piece of good news for those optimistic about coexistence. However, if the 7 percent (91 million) of 1.3 billion Muslims today worldwide are politically radicalized and they continue to feel politically dominated, occupied and disrespected, the West’s opportunity to address these drivers of extremism will be as great as the challenge of succeeding.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on