By Ahmed Mohamed
Washington — What do the vast majority of mainstream Muslims really think? Rather than listening to extremists or simply relying on the opinions of individual pundits, why not give voice to the silenced majority? How is this voice different, or similar to, voices from America?
To answer these questions, the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies initiated a worldwide survey lead by Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst with the Gallup Poll and executive director of the center. In 2008, the study was published as a book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. On April 22, 2009, Mogahed presented a few of the results in a lecture titled “Who Speaks for Islam?” at the U.S. State Department.
The study took six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews representing 1.3 billion Muslims who reside in more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have sizable Muslim populations. Representing more than 90 percent of the world’s Muslim community, this poll is the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind.
The study revealed some surprising findings. It showed that Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.
Both citizens of Muslim-majority countries and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable. Those who do choose violence and extremism are driven by politics, not poverty or piety. And when they were asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job.
According to the Gallup study, 93 percent of Muslims who condemn the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, cite the Quran. This supports a major finding, that militant extremism is created not by Islamic principles but by political orientation. In nearly every suicide bombing attack from 1980 to 2004, the primary motive was to overthrow foreign occupation, not further religious views.
When asked what they admire most about the West, citizens of Muslim countries ranked technology first and liberty and democracy second. They expressed widespread admiration for the freedom of expression and assembly, rule of law, and government accountability they see in the West. Americans in the United States ranked liberty and democracy first and technology second.
The most important message seen in the results of this study are the similarities between the citizens of Muslim nations and citizens in the West. For example, in the first chapter, “Democracy and Theocracy,” 42 percent of Americans interviewed in a Gallup Poll suggested that “religious leaders should have a direct role in writing the constitution.” Fifty-five percent believe that religious leaders should “play no role at all.” The Iranian population has presented similar opinions.
Gallup polling found that, on some issues, Americans’ views are closer to those of citizens of Muslim nations than to Western Europeans. For example, a question measuring the purposefulness of life reveals a surprising pattern: 94 percent of Americans believe their lives have an important purpose. This compares with only 68 percent of French citizens and 69 percent in the Netherlands. On the other hand, 96 percent of Indonesians express this sentiment, as do 91 percent of Saudi Arabians.
The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies is a nonpartisan research center on the views of Muslim populations around the world.
With John L. Esposito of Georgetown University, Mogahed is coauthor of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. She was recently appointed by President Obama as a member of the White House Faith-Based Committee.