Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Study of Muslim beliefs should guide policy makers

IANS Wednesday 27th February, 2008

US President George W. Bush has often said radicals in the Islamic world who commit terrorist attacks are motivated by hatred for freedom and democracy, but a new poll suggests exactly the opposite may be true.

Only about seven percent of Muslims condone terrorist attacks, but none of these 'politically radicalised' gave religious justification for their beliefs, instead voicing fears that the West and the US are seeking to occupy and dominate the Islamic world.

Most of them actually espouse democratic beliefs but are sceptical of their own governments and the US' professed intention to spread democracy in the Muslim world.

Those were some of the key messages Tuesday from the authors of a new book, 'Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think', which outlines the results from a Gallup organization poll of some 50,000 Muslims in more than 35 predominantly Muslim countries.

'Politics, not piety, differentiate moderates from radicals' in the Islamic world, said Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim studies. 'Terrorism sympathizers don't hate our freedom. They want our freedom.'

Many of the poll's findings went against the 'conventional wisdom' of US politicians, media commentators and the American public about Muslims' views of the West, the role of religion and the value of democracy, according to John L. Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, who co-authored the book with Mogahed.

'What we have here is the ability to get beyond the battle of the experts' and let 'the data lead the discourse', Esposito said.

What is needed is an overhaul of how the United States reaches out to people in the Muslim world, Esposito said, criticizing the current approach as 'public diplomacy defined as public relations'.

Gallup's polling found that most Americans - politicians and people - suggest improvements in education and more exchanges as a means of improving ties between the West and Islamic countries. What Americans fail to recognize, Esposito said, is that Muslims lobbied just as hard for changes in US foreign policy - including a perceived 'double standard' in promoting democracy around the world.

'One also has to face the fact that policy really does matter,' Esposito told reporters. 'It's the political grievances that are the real drivers' of radicalisation.

In other words, it was not religious beliefs that have driven some Muslims to believe that the Sep 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were justified.

'Not one gave religious justification' for the attacks, and radicals instead expressed fears that the United States was seeking to occupy the Islamic world, Mogahed said. It was actually those who condemned the attacks who would even cite passages from the Quran to demonstrate its moral repugnancy.

But while religion was not the motivation of those who supported the attacks, Esposito said that extremists have clearly 'framed' their arguments as a religious struggle in an attempt to attract devout Muslims to their cause.

'The most solid fear to mobilize somebody (with) is to use religion,' he said.

Among the overwhelming majority of Muslims, their views were driven less by a hatred of the West than a perception that the West hates them. Only 17 percent said the West 'respects' Islam.

Mogahed said that pollsters heard 'over and over' a belief that people in the West considered Muslims 'inferior', while a vast majority said that a change in those negative views of Islam was the best way to improve relations.

In fact, Muslims highlighted technological innovation and liberal democratic values as the two things they most admire about the US, yet fewer than 50 percent believe the US was serious about bringing democracy to Islamic countries.

Broad majorities across Muslim nations - 94 percent in Egypt and 93 percent in Iran - said they would support constitutions in their own countries that included greater freedom of speech and freedom of the press, while majorities also said that religious figures should have no hand in writing those constitutions.

Even 50 percent of so-called radicals said that democracy could spur progress in Muslim countries.

Yet more than 90 percent of all Muslims said that religion played a crucial role in their own lives, and large majorities said Islamic values and Sharia law should dictate a part or all of the state's laws.

Esposito said that the poll showed Muslims hoped for freedom 'but not an American imposed, defined democracy', while Muslims also showed a much greater concern for their own security and economic situation than espoused conflict with the West.

'The dreams are not for war with the West,' he said. 'It's dreams for work and jobs.'

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