Professor John Esposito: One billion Muslim voices

Reading your mind

While speaking authoritatively about Islam and the “psychology” of the Muslim mind, the talking heads on television screens, the experts sitting in prestigious think tanks, the policy analysts strategizing in D.C., and the often loud and bombastic voices heard on the airwaves are rarely, if ever, Muslims. To many concerned and prescient minds, this reality is often baffling and troubling. One such individual, Jim Clifton, Gallup’s chairman and CEO, remarked that “no one in Washington had any idea what 1.3 billion Muslims were thinking, and yet we were working on intricate strategies that were going to change the world for all time.”

In order to discover what Muslims truly think, Gallup spent 6 years interviewing nearly 50,000 Muslims from 35 countries representing the most comprehensive analysis of the wishes, desires, grievances, complaints, and opinions of nearly 1.3 billion Muslims. This data was collected and analyzed by John L. Esposito, a leading American expert on Islam and a professor at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, in their new, groundbreaking work, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. The results are illuminating to say the least.

We spoke to Professor Esposito to discuss the results of this massive survey and their profound implications in elucidating and understanding the misconceptions, stereotypes, and realities of 1.3 billion Muslims.

Most people are inherently skeptical of polls and surveys. There seems to be so many of them, often conflicting, and it’s hard to assess their veracity. So, how can we verify the accuracy of this data in your book? How can you convince a skeptic that the procedures you used for this book are in fact an accurate assessment of how a billion Muslims really do think?

ESPOSITO: There are lots of polling organizations out there. One would have to say that, by industry standards, Gallup is clearly seen as a leader if not the leader in polling. It has that reputation for its methodology and accuracy. Here, we are looking at a Gallup-world poll, one that looks at some 35 Muslim countries and indeed has the methodology and graphs which looks at urban and village differences, one that looks at men and women, one that looks at young and old, one that looks at different socio-economic class, etc. It’s a very systematic and sustained methodology that one is sort of drawing from. You can see the data from this. By industry standards, plus or minus 3%, this poll is seen as representing a billion voices in Muslim countries.

It was the largest survey of its kind ever done. So, we’re not talking about some individual, ad hoc service, kind of survey done by Pew or Zogby, we are talking about a systematic and sustained, comprehensive survey. It started from data collected from 2001 right up to 2007.

It’s very representative also in terms of the different areas of the Muslim world. It’s not simply the Middle East. It also includes South Asia, Central Asia, and Indonesia, etc., as well. It’s a very sophisticated vehicle.

Obviously, you’re always going to have people who will raise issues. I firmly expect this book will be celebrated because a good deal of data goes against conventional wisdom. But, on the other hand, those who are ideologues and have very ideological positions on Arabs and Muslims, of course, they are going to have problems with this. Because, suddenly, [the ideologues] won’t be able to comfortably spout off their “wisdom,” instead these statistics will make people ask, “Hey, wait a minute. You’ve been saying “X” about why Muslims hate us or about their gender issues. But, you know, a lot of what you said about Muslims – when you actually poll a majority of Muslims in these countries- is incorrect. They disagree with you.”

I think that’s the value of this study. That one is able to say, on a variety of political, religious issues, that a majority of Muslims hold this position or that position, or this outlook or that attitude, etc.

Frequently in America we hear, “Muslims hate our values and our freedoms.” The Question is: Do they hate us, and if they do, why?

That’s part of it. When you look at the data, you actually have a refutation of that argument. When Muslims are asked, “Do they admire anything about the West?” contrast that to Americans when asked, “What do you admire about Muslims?” The answer of majority Americans is either, “I don’t know” or “Nothing.” So, close to 56% Americans say this.

Muslims, even though they do resent us, they talk about how they admire us. How they admire our freedom, how they admire our work ethic, our technology, and a whole slew of qualities. When asked, “What do you resent about the West and what concerns you about the West?” They are very clear about this as well. They’re very clear about resenting the denigration of Islam and Muslims and painting them as extremists. They’re very clear about being concerned about [American] invasion or “dominance.” But the important thing here is that the notion – “they hate us for who we are”, our values, our freedoms, and our democratization – is simply refuted.

A majority of Muslims in most Muslim countries surveyed simply indicate the opposite. That answers another question that we have here which is, “You know, if ‘they’ hate ‘us’ so much, when they’re given an opportunity how come many would like to study here or visit?” Anti-Americanism is not based on who we are, in terms of values and principles, many of which are admired by others. But, rather, it’s by what we do. It’s the way we walk, not so much by the way we talk in terms of our principles. It’s the sense of our double standards that creates the problem.

In your book you differentiate between the” politically radicalized Muslims” and the “moderate Muslims”. Often times we hear radicalization is caused by poverty, hardship, marginalization, lack of opportunity, and oppressive governments. Yet, your data shows the politically radicalized, on average, are more educated than moderates (“67 percent of those with extremist views have secondary or higher educations vs. 52 percent of moderates”). They are also more likely to report average or above-average income (“65 percent of the politically radicalized say they have average or above-average income versus 55 percent of moderates”). So, Islam must in someway inherently cause or inspire the violence, right? Don’t these findings contradict the assumption that only the destitute and oppressed engage in or harbor extremist feelings?

It does. Clearly, these are factors. But the primary drivers are politics and not piety. In that, the politics that drive it have to do with what are perceived or experienced as American foreign policy, or other people’s policy. Issues like occupation, issues of dependency, issues of support for authoritarian regimes who are seen as oppressive. It’s primarily politics.

That doesn’t rule out the fact that religion comes to play a role when people go to legitimate who they are and why they’re doing what they doing. The primary causes and drivers are political grievances. You see this when you look at the lives of the primary players, if you look at the speeches of the Bin Ladens and the Ayman al Zawihiris and many others. In the early parts of their speeches the drivers are political grievances. Then, when they talk about “what shall we do” and “how should we respond”, and then when it’s about support, mobilization, and legitimating what they want to do, then they contextualize it and say, “We’re fighting for justice here.” They don’t pull out Arab nationalism or Arab socialism, which are dead ideologies, they cite religion – they cite Islam.

Let’s talk about moving forward in the future. Should we isolate and forget the politically radicalized? Cut them out of the equation completely and focus on the moderates? Or, is there a way to make a conversation with the politically radicalized?

I think the most important sector is the politically radicalized. I mean the moderates are like the moderates here. They are like mainstream Westerners. They’re not the issue.

The politically radicalized are interesting, because that label doesn’t mean they engage in violence, but it does mean they have a perception of the world and of the West, which can lead to further, if you will, marginalization and a further sense of alienation. Therefore, some can be attracted by the Bin Ladens of the world. That’s why one wants to look and ask what are their grievances? The key thing here is the politically radicalized are the people who will still say, “9-11 was justified.”

Part of what you want to address is, “What are the kind of issues the politically radicalized have and is there any legitimacy to these issues?” When you examine the issues there is a concern and legitimacy to see some Western countries – and politically radicalized distinguish between Western countries – for example, Bush and Blair are very low in their ratings in term of approval, whereas leaders of other European countries fare much better.

So, then one has to look into issues of unilateralism and arrogance; issues of a double standard when it comes to the promotion of democracy. Issues of whom do we support when it comes to authoritarian regimes. So, you look at this and learn from it. For example, take Egypt and look at the growing authoritarian posture of [dictator of Egypt] Hosni Mubarak and you see it, such as in the recent trial with the Muslim Brotherhood when 3 civil courts threw out all their charges, but then Mubarak sent the case to a military court, who are now stampeding to a decision.

Well, one can understand the frustration, where if the U.S. is saying it is going to promote democracy amongst its allies, and then provides significant financial support to the Mubarak regime. This can reinforce the fact such policies can push those who are politically radicalized in their worldview – can push some of them not only to a negative view of American foreign policy, but also push some into extremism.

Let’s take what you just said and apply it to current affairs, where you say the politically radicalized have an animosity towards England and the U.S. regarding, what they perceive, as disrespect towards Islam and Muslims. Barak Obama is a good example of how “Muslim” has become the Scarlet Letter of the 21st century. They consistently smear him with allegations of “Muslim” as if to taint his character – even though he isn’t Muslim. It’s like he’s apologizing for an assumed leprosy and disease he doesn’t have.

Exactly

Does this smear campaign highlight the overwhelming animosity of Americans towards Muslims and Islam or is it an isolated incident used for political expediency?

I don’t think it reflects a majority of the situations in America or Europe. But it does reflect a significant minority in that they are a significant minority of the population in Europe and America that are increasingly appealed to by a lot of our Islamophobic political and media commentators. So, you get someone who writes one article after another trying to justify why he can say that in an early stage in Obama’s life, Obama was a Muslim or some kind of Muslim. As if that is some sort of negative or a disease. There’s an implication that if he can establish [a link to Islam], that somehow that should de-legitimate Obama.

I think part of the reality we have in recent years is the growth of Islamophobia both in Europe and America. That’s why Kofi Annan and others held a major conference at the U.N. on Islamophobia, which I and a number of others attended. It does reflect the fact you’ve got people playing this “Muslim Card,” as a way to de-legitimate someone.

A comparable example is to look at what happened to Keith Ellison [an African-American Muslim congressman from Minnesota], both when he was running and when he was elected. Fortunately, even though they tried to pile it on as he was running, he had tremendous support from the community, including from local Jewish leaders when people were trying to imply all kind of things about him.

But, even after he was elected, remember the whole questions whether or not, and when he did take his oath on the Quran? What you’ve got are people, and we sometimes underestimate the number of people like this, such as [Glenn] Beck on CNN, the number of academic experts, so called media and commentator experts, who are anti-Muslim. One just has to say that flat out.

In discussing Islam over the years, you’ve confronted a number of critics and serious allegations about your character. Here’s a criticism often leveled against you, and I’d like your response. Some critics have described you “as one of the foremost apologists for Islamism in recent years.” Why is the attempt in trying to show Islam in a more accurate light seen by many as apologia and what’s your response to the criticism?

The fact is these kinds of statements were never made for years. The fact is when people disagreed about what an expert said they’d say why they disagreed. This kind of, sort of “using name-calling” is a very interesting thing. When [someone] uses this type of language, or some of the other authors whose positions I find very problematic, such as Bernard Lewis and Martin Kramer, would they all feel comfortable if I said they were enemies of Islam?

You know, this is a phony kind of word. It’s just a way to come up with a term to try to denigrate. What they want to do is shut down other people. They want to intimidate and silence. That’s what their hope is. These are the preachers of hate that I think need to be exposed in our society.

You mention the “preachers of hate” and I want to talk about preachers in general. Right-wingers, for lack of a better description, and religious conservatives in this country routinely paint Muslims as incompatible with U.S. values, specifically separation of church and state and the concept of nationalism and allegiance to U.S. First, how accurate is that assessment? And secondly, aren’t these “Sharia, theocracy-now Muslims” very similar to Christians in this country who vocally advocate for a more God-Bible based legislative and judiciary system?

We have to be far more sophisticated and nuanced when we look at things. First, when Muslims talk about Sharia, many are talking about principles and values of Islam. Some are talking about specific codes and prescriptions. Very ultra conservative Muslims want to apply the corpus of law that was developed in the past by religious scholars.

But for many others, as seen in the Gallup survey, when they say they want to see Sharia as a source of law, they want to see democratization. What they want is a move towards democratization, but in a society which also incorporates what they consider to be true Islamic values or “Sharia values.” So, we have to distinguish between those who want a Taliban mentality, or a corpus of law that one will find in Saudi Arabia, and then, finally, many Muslims across the world who just want to see their religious values.

At the same time you have to think comparatively, because you make a very good point. The fact is we have Christian fundamentalists in this country and it is a significant minority. When you look at the percentages in this book, when you ask Americans, you wind up with a significant percentage of Americans who believe that our laws should be based on the Bible. One has to realize even in our secular society you have people advocating this kind of position.

You’ve studied religion and theology all your life. You have a unique background and have world experience with Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Explain the rise of religious extremism in the 21st century and specifically why it is often linked inexorably with politics? It seems political ideology has hijacked or forcibly married religion as a convenient vehicle for selfish, purely political ends? Why has this been so successful?

The reality is this: what we’ve seen in the last 3 or 4 decades, we’ve seen in many religions, in fact I’d say all the world’s religions in greater or lesser extent, we’ve seen a reassertion of religion amongst a segment of the population not only in personal life, but for some it carries into social and political life. A lot of that is mainstream. People want prayer in school; people want more recognition of religious values in society. People might be anti-abortion, or for abortion but argued from a religious position.

But, at the same, what we also see is that religion has become a vehicle for religious extremists. We see this in regards to Hindu fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, and Muslim fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists aren’t necessarily radical, but there are radical fundamentalists in these groups. We’ve seen instances in Israel with the assassination of Rabin. We’ve seen it with conflicts between Muslims and Jews in relation to Israel. We see it in Sri Lanka with the Tamils. We see it certainly in the Middle East. We see it with abortion clinic bombings here.

So the question is why the appeal to religion? Well, because, people have grievances and for some of these people, genuinely although distorted, they do realize there is far more power and legitimacy in an ability to mobilize- if one can do it – one’s doing if one can claim it in God’s will. No matter how charismatic you are as an individual, you are still an individual. But, if you can claim that this is God’s will, then you obviously both have great certitude in your life, but also you can bring followers together and attempt to legitimate your claims.

For example, both of those who engaged in violence, those who are Jewish and Muslim in Israel/Palestine, they can enhance what they’re doing if they can claim it’s not just a fight over land, but it’s a fight for land given to them or promised to them by God.

Let’s, hypothetically, grant what you said as truth. However, can’t one say, “Listen, terrorists are everywhere, agreed. But, Islam produces the greatest and most consistent number. If you don’t believe me, Professor Esposito, just look at the Muslim world! It’s in flames!”

Absolutely.

We see terrorists in Europe, in Latin America, in Asia, yet this overwhelming brand of suicide bombing and terror networking, if you will, runs rampant throughout Muslim regions. Isn’t this more proof of an inherently dangerous religion; that something exists within this religion that causes the violence?”

I don’t think so. I certainly think there is an indication that there is a “dark side” within Muslim societies and that dark side uses and appeals to religion. But, when you base the question on why it’s so widespread, I say look at the nature of so many Muslim societies. Many of these by the way are secular governments that are authoritarian and oppressive, etc. If you had, say, 35 Northern Irelands, you’d say, “My God, look at all these Christians, look at all these Catholics and Protestants that go at it.” If you have 35 Israel and Palestines, you would not only say, “What is about these Muslims?” you’d also say, “What is it about these religious Jews?”

The fact is you have lots of Muslim countries, which for a variety of political and economic reasons, not all, but many are societies in which levels of injustice are very high. These become a ground for people to legitimate acts of wanton violence. If you think before the time of this resurgence of religion, during the period of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Marxism, etc., one saw violence in a number of Muslim countries at that time. The appeal wasn’t to religion to legitimate it; it was to some form of Marxism, socialism, Arab nationalism, etc. So, what you’ve got now is “ ideologized religion.” This happens when religion becomes a political ideology to address to major issues of injustice.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com.


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