Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations:
Where have we been and how do we move ahead
The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center’s inaugural report, Measuring the State of Muslim- West Relations: Assessing the “New Beginning,” presents an in-depth analysis of Muslims’ and Westerners’ attitudes toward interactions between their societies. This mammoth study, based on more than 123,000 surveys conducted in 55 countries and areas between 2006 and 2010, not only explores in greater detail key findings from my book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, but also delves into new dimensions of the Muslim- West relationship.
More specifically, the book underscored three main themes in Muslims’ perceptions of Muslim-West tensions: the salience of politics as opposed to religion, the importance of respect and the role of conflicts in Muslim lands that involve Western powers. Since the book’s publication in March 2008, a new U.S. administration has explicitly committed to engaging with Muslims around the world, seeking a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect and mutual interest.”
Against this backdrop, Assessing the New Beginning looks at how Muslims’ and Westerners’ attitudes toward the Muslim- West relationship have changed over time, including how Muslims view the job performance of U.S. leadership.
The report delves into the meaning of respect and the source of tensions between Western and majority Muslim societies. It also compares and contrasts individuals who express an interest in Muslim-West engagement and those who do not. Furthermore, the report summarizes public attitudes in three conflict areas: Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Drawing from the key findings, the report presents six policy recommendations that aim to inform the debate based on the many facets of Muslim-West relations in the U.S. and beyond. We have chosen the most important discoveries to share with readers. The full study is available for free in Arabic and English at hyperlink http://www. AbuDhabiGallupCenter.com
WHAT HAS CHANGED SINCE PRESIDENT OBAMA TOOK OFFICE?
One of the most surprising things about our study is what we didn’t find. Expecting to see a great deal of change in Muslim attitudes toward the West and the United States in particular around the world from 2008 to 2010, we discovered that for most Muslims, little had shifted. The exception was among residents of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where public opinion toward the West and U.S. leadership significantly improved, at least at first.
Between 2008 and 2009, approval of U.S. leadership remained flat in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but it increased from 12 percent to 32 percent in MENA. However, findings from subsequent surveys reveal that the momentum was not sustained in this region. In fact, approval of U.S. leadership in several Arab countries decreased in early 2010. The drop was most pronounced in Egypt. In 2008, 6 percent of Egyptians said they approved of U.S. leadership, in early 2009, 25 percent said the same. Egyptians’ approval reached 37 percent in August 2009, just two months after President Obama’s speech in Cairo. But in February 2010, their approval of U.S. leadership dropped to 19 percent.
Other results help explain why MENA public opinion was so much quicker to change. There, people expressed more concern about the relationship, which may mean they are paying more attention to what the U.S. does and says. Compared with residents in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, those living in the MENA region place the highest level of importance on Muslim-West relations. In 2009, 61 percent of MENA residents – compared with 52 percent in Asia and 49 percent in sub-Saharan Africa – said the quality of the interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds is important to them. In addition, MENA residents most likely believe that majority Muslim communities are committed to improving interactions with Western societies.
Their high level of concern, however, is accompanied by a low level of belief that this commitment is reciprocated; minorities of respondents in those three regions believe that the West is committed to improving relations with majority Muslim societies.
Underscoring the remaining gap in understanding, analysts found that majorities of Western respondents also place great importance on the quality of Muslim-West relations. Of all Westerners surveyed, Americans (78 percent) are most likely to say the quality of Muslim-West relations is important to them.
EXPLORING THE FAULT LINES: POLITICS, CULTURE, RELIGION
We discovered that only a minority of people in the West and the Muslim global community believe that the two communities are getting along well today. The question becomes what is the root cause of conflict? Are tensions more the result of differences in religion, political interests or culture? We discovered that most people place the blame on either religion or politics, and that the view that dominates does matter.
Europe and MENA residents are the most likely to view political differences as the cause of Muslim-West tensions – an average of 40 percent in both regions. More specifically, individuals in Lebanon (74 percent), Iran (58 percent), Syria (53 percent), and the Palestinian territories (52 percent) are among those most likely to cite politics as the source of Muslim-West tensions. At the same time, 40 percent of people in MENA believe that such tensions stem from religious differences.
Why should we care? Because those who perceive political differences as the cause of such tensions are, in general, more likely to believe that violent conflict between majority Muslim and Western societies can be avoided. This is particularly true in MENA (46 percent) and the U.S. and Canada (average 40 percent), where residents believe that conflict is avoidable (compared with 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively, who believe conflict is unavoidable). By contrast, individuals who view tensions as grounded in religious differences are less hopeful about avoiding conflict. Among those who believe a conflict is inevitable, an average of 44 percent in the U.S. and Canada and 51 percent in MENA cite religious factors as the basis of tensions.
Across all regions, the perception that cultural differences are the cause of Muslim- West tensions is a minority view, though residents in the U.S. and Canada (26 percent) are most likely to believe that such tensions are based in culture.
GREATER INTERACTION BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND THE WEST: THREAT OR BENEFIT?
The rise and fall of MENA approval of U.S. leadership may lead some to conclude that the public in these regions does not see greater interaction with the West positively. This is not the case.
In the vast majority of countries surveyed, individuals are more likely to say that greater interaction between the two sides is a benefit rather than a threat. Across 48 countries where Gallup fielded the question, an average of 59 percent of respondents say it is a benefit, 21 percent say it is a threat and 20 percent do not express an opinion. Furthermore, the results reveal that positive attitudes toward increased contact are not exclusive to either side. In the U.S., 76 percent of individuals say greater interaction is a benefit, 21 percent view it as a threat and 3 percent say they do not know. In Iran, 63 percent of respondents view greater contact as a benefit, 19 percent say it is a threat and 18 percent say they do not know.
In terms of demographic characteristics, individuals between the ages of 15 and 29, men, and those with at least a high school degree are the most likely to view greater interaction as a benefit, regardless of whether they live in a majority Muslim society or Western country. An average of 62 percent of Muslims with at least a high school degree compared with 49 percent of those with an elementary education say greater contact is a benefit.
The relationship between education and positive views on increased contact with the other side is even more pronounced in the Western countries surveyed – 85 percent of those with at least a high school degree compared with 54 percent of individuals with an elementary education say greater interaction with the other is a benefit.
ENGAGEMENT READINESS: WHO IS LOOKING FOR IMPROVED RELATIONS?
As we stood back and looked at all the data, two profiles started to emerge. In Muslim majority and Western societies, some people appeared to be “ready” for engagement, while others were clearly “not ready.” Therefore, we decided to segment these two groups and see what salient characteristics defined each group. We based our classification on individuals’ attitudes toward the importance of the quality of Muslim-West relations, commitment to improving relations, perceptions of being respected by the other side, perceptions of the outcome of having greater interaction, as well as perceptions of future conflict. Overall, Ready individuals perceive that their own side (either Western or majority Muslim society) is committed to greater contact with the other. They are positive about greater interaction and believe that conflict is avoidable. Not Ready individuals are doubtful of their communities’ commitment and respect for the other side. They also reject greater interaction and view a Muslim-West conflict as inevitable.
The characteristics of readiness surprised us. For Not Ready individuals, irrespective of whether they live in majority Muslim or Western societies, religion is the factor most cited as the root of Muslim-West tensions – 55 percent in majority Muslim societies and 46 percent in Western societies. In contrast, for Ready individuals, the key factor is not religion but politics – 46 percent of Ready Muslims and 39 percent of Ready Westerners.
This may lead some to assume that religiosity is associated with a reluctance to engage. Our analysis showed the exact opposite. Ready individuals living in majority Muslim societies are more likely than those classified as Not Ready to report having attended a religious service in the past week.
RECOMMENDATIONS: HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
With this vast research in hand, our analyst crafted a number of recommendations for governments and NGOs working to improve Muslim-West relations.
When engaging Muslims globally, focus the most effort in the area of greatest need and receptivity – the MENA region.
Leadership in Western and majority Muslim societies should more effectively communicate on-the-ground initiatives within both societies. Such efforts should emphasize areas of partnership that go beyond security concerns, such as science, technology and entrepreneurship.
Policy initiatives should continue to emphasize mutual respect and mutual interests by discussing the fairness of decisions and actions, in addition to continuing to use culturally appropriate narratives.
In engaging diplomatically and building efforts for collaboration, majority Muslim and Western society leaders must emphasize resolving political issues rather than religious conflict. §
Dalia Mogahed is the Director of The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, as well as the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. She is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think and served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
• Greatest improvement in opinion of U.S. among Muslims found in MENA, but was not sustained
• Muslim-West tensions seen as mostly avoidable, especially by those who view them as political vs. religious
• Muslim religious practice and satisfaction with own leaders associated with greater readiness for engagement
• “Respect” includes perceptions of fairness in policies