Extremists and terrorism have too often monopolised the media coverage and thus the message coming out of the Muslim world. But what do the vast majority of mainstream Muslims really believe, think, and feel? What are their hopes, fears, and resentments? Why is it that a robust anti-Americanism seems to pervade the Muslim world? Is it the sign of a clash of cultures Ã¢â‚¬" do they hate who we are? Or is it what we do? Rather than listening to extremists or simply relying on the opinions of individual pundits, why not give voice to the silenced majority?
We asked Muslims around the world what they really think and discovered that when we let the data lead the discourse, a number of insights are revealed. The most important finding from our research was this: conflict between Muslim and Western communities is far from inevitable. It is more about policy than principles. 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.
Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think is based on 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% of the world`s Muslim community, this poll is the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind. The results defy conventional wisdom and the inevitability of a global conflict Ã¢â‚¬" even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.
The study revealed some surprising findings. It showed that Muslims 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. In fact, of the 7 percent of responders who did believe 9/11 was justified, none of them hated our freedom; they want our freedom. However, they believe that America, and the West in general, operate with a double standard and stand in the way of Muslims determining their own future.
We are constantly bombarded with images of angry Muslim teens partaking in violent demonstrations or being trained in Al Qaeda camps. This study showed, however, that the vast majority of young Muslims aren`t dreaming of going to war; they are dreaming of finding work. Similarly, when asked about their hopes for the future, Muslims of all ages said they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
The findings also revealed that Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratisation. At the same time, however, they claim that society should be built upon religious Islamic values and that the shari`a (Islamic law) should be a source of law. Simply put, the majority of Muslim women and men want rights and religion, and they don`t see the two as being mutually exclusive.
The West will be pleased to learn that nine out of ten Muslims are moderates Ã¢â‚¬" good news for those optimistic about co-existence. Muslims say the most important thing Westerners can do to improve relations with their societies is to change their negative views toward Muslims, respect Islam and re-evaluate foreign policies.
The unfortunate news is that there is a large number of politically radicalised Muslims (the 7 percent previously mentioned, which translates to approximately 91 million individuals) that could be pushed to support or perpetrate violence against civilians. Challenges for the West will only grow as long as these Muslims continue to feel politically dominated and disregarded.
* John L. Esposito is a Georgetown University Professor and Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Dalia Mogahed is a Gallup Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. This article is written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)