This is a question you get all the time when the conversation turns to Islam and the Muslim world. And it is usually followed by another set of questions: What do Muslims think about terrorist attacks? Do they really believe in democracy and human rights? Are women treated equally in Muslim societies? Can Muslims live in peace with other religions and cultures?
While the question of “who speaks for Islam” is a major theme for scholarly debate, a new book by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed turns to ordinary Muslims and asks what they think about the issues just mentioned. The book “Who Speaks for Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think” (Gallup Press, 2008), which has just been released, is based on Gallup’s world poll. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup surveyed about 50,000 people from 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations. This is a huge sampling representing the vast majority of the Muslim world. The authors call them “the silenced majority” of Islam.
Every major finding of the book flies in the face of the commonly held perceptions about Islam and the Muslim world. Here is a summary of the findings: Muslims do not see the West as a monolithic block. They respect certain aspects of Western societies such as science, technology and education. Most of their criticism concentrates on Western policies. They also cite the West’s moral decay and loss of traditional values.
These are in conformity with the findings of a survey recently published by the SETA Foundation called “Perceptions of the West in Turkish Society.” The book, based on in-depth interviews, asks a number of questions about what is perceived as Western culture, religion, society and politics. One key result is that there is no opposition in Turkey to the West based on religion and culture. All of the major criticisms focus on Western policies. (A summary of the book in English appears in the latest issue of “Insight Turkey” published by SETA; for details, see www.setav.org))
According to “Who Speaks for Islam,” a substantial majority of Muslims reject attacks on civilians and terrorism. Among those who condone acts of terrorism feature both religious and non-religious people. Muslim men and women advocate equal rights for women while preserving their religious traditions. While many favor religious law (which in the case of Islam means not only law but also ethical conduct) as a source of legislation, they do not want religious scholars to have a direct role in writing a constitution. What do Muslims want from the West? As the authors of the book put it, they want R.E.S.P.E.C.T, i.e., respect for their cultural and religious traditions.
Given these findings and the current perceptions of Muslims, there is a disturbing disconnection between the two. According to the Gallup surveys, about one-quarter of Americans say that they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor and only less than half believe that American Muslims are loyal to the United States. In a similar way, a 2006 USA Today and Gallup survey found out that 44 percent of Americans believe that Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs. I don’t think anybody can claim that things are any better in Europe.
Now, finally we have a major study that presents a truthful picture of what people in the Muslim world really think about these critical issues. It is not the self-professed “Islam, terrorism and Middle East expert” (all at the same time!) or the Muslim apologist speaking here. It is the ordinary people, the “silenced majority” that speaks for reason. This is extremely significant not only for correcting the Western perceptions of Islam but also for understanding the underlying beliefs, hopes and aspirations of Muslims across the Islamic world. The study also shows that there is a disconnection between what Muslims want and what they have in their countries.
In contrast to many so-called expert studies of the Muslim world, the book by Esposito and Mogahed does not interpret the absence of democra