More friends than enemies: Polling results dispel myths about the Muslim world

By: Z. S. Justus

A recent large-scale poll by the Gallup organization has painted a picture of the Islamic world that may be surprising to many Americans. The group surveyed 50,000 Muslims in 40 countries representing over 90% of the world’s Muslims. In a forthcoming book authors John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed report on many of the survey findings.

The concept of the “moderate Muslim” has been a source of intrigue and controversy for sometime, but has taken on increased importance since 9/11. Some Muslims have taken a liberal stance while many alarmists believe the title “moderate” is more fiction than fact. The quality work done by Gallup goes a long way towards settling this debate. Esposito and Mogahed reported some of their team’s findings on the Gallup Web site, writing,

“Majorities of both men and women in many predominantly Muslim countries want to see Islamic principles, Sharia, as a source of legislation. These respondents have much in common with the majority of Americans who wish to see the Bible as a source of legislation. Both groups emphasize the importance of family values and are deeply concerned about issues of social morality. In fact, what respondents in the Muslim world and a significant number of Americans say they admire least about Western civilization is an excessive libertinism in society.”

It is critical to note that their survey results and analysis do not downplay the importance of Islam to the lives of citizens in Muslim countries. However, the importance of Islam to Muslims underscores a connection to Christians in the West rather than a separation as both groups want to see their religion respected within the halls of government.

Aside from this important contribution, the survey results reported by Espostio and Mogahed reveal several important facts. First, while some commentators in the United States associate Islamic principles with a commitment to violent extremism, the results of the survey showed just the opposite. 93% of the 50,000 Muslims surveyed unequivocally condemned the attacks of 9/11 with many citing religious reasons including the Koran’s stance against the taking of innocent life. By stark contrast “radical Muslims gave political, not religious, reasons for condoning the attacks.” This survey result points unmistakably towards the Muslim religion as an ally for the United States and political extremism, perhaps couched in religious rhetoric, as the true threat.

Second, the book and survey results have, thus far, been extremely well received in parts of the Muslim world. For instance, Lebanon daily star reporter Khouri writes that the book, “has the potential to change perceptions of millions of people, and, by doing so, perhaps to change policies of governments for the better.” This would seem to indicate that at least some commentators are eager to build stronger relationships with the United States built on mutual understanding rather than mistrust.

Public opinion research has long been a focus of communication scholarship. Herbst (1993) draws a clear line between public opinion polling and political directions of the United States. We can only hope that policymakers will be equally compelled to act based on results from international polling. In the United States many people have worked hard to find points of contrast between “us and them” it is time to start finding points of connection instead.

Herbst, S. (1993). Opinion quantification and democracy. In Numbered voices: How opinion polling has shaped American politics (pp. 153-175). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.