LONDON (Reuters) - In the years since the September 11 attacks on the United States, much has been said about the Muslim world, but little, it is argued, has been gathered on what Muslims truly think of the West.
Now Gallup, the global polling group, has conducted research in 35 Muslim countries, interviewing more than 50,000 people over a six-year period, to come up with what it is calling the first comprehensive survey of Muslim world opinion.
The results, published in a book called “Who Speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think”, provide often surprising clues as to how Muslims perceive the West and how misunderstanding on both sides -- often perpetuated by politicians and the media -- can fuel suspicion and conflict.
“The conflict between Muslims and Western communities is far from inevitable,” co-author Dalia Mogahed said on Monday, laying out one of the fundamental conclusions she and John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University, drew from the reams of data.
“It is more about policy than principles... Despite widespread anti-American and anti-British sentiment, Muslims around the world said they in fact admired much of what the West holds dear”, including freedom of speech, democracy, technological progress and access to knowledge.
“Muslims do not see the West as monolithic -- their perception of different nations falls along policy, not cultural or religious lines,” she said.
The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is closely backed by Britain, have done much to color the perception of the two in the Muslim world, where they are widely regarded “unfavorably” and described as “aggressive”.
Yet both Britain and the United States are at the same time held up by many Muslims as the best representatives of what is most admired about the West -- the freedom of its citizens.
While admiring Western values, many Muslims feel they are not respected by the West and that the values the West espouses, such as democracy, are only given lip service when it comes to applying them in the Muslim world.
A recent example was the 2006 election in the Palestinian territories, which the Islamist movement Hamas won in a free and fair poll. The United States and Israel have since done much to ignore the result and try to push Hamas out of office.
“More than 65 percent of Egyptians, Jordanians and Iranians believe that the United States will not allow people in their region to fashion their own political future the way they see fit without direct U.S. influence,” Mogahed said.
“When we asked Muslims around the world what the West can do to improve relations with the Muslim world, the most frequent responses were for the West to demonstrate more respect for Islam and to regard Muslims as equals, not as inferior.”
U.S. surveys show that Americans do in fact have a low opinion of Muslims, with only 34 percent of those polled by Gallup saying they had no prejudice towards Muslims and 19 percent saying they had a “great deal” of prejudice.
When the authors looked at where opinions of the West were lowest in the Muslim world, it tended to correlate with where conflicts were going on -- nations bordering Iraq or Israel and the Palestinian territories were more negative in their views.
The most positive Muslim nations were those in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Sierra Leone, where U.S. and British aid have done much to improve opinion after years of conflict.
A factor overlaying each side’s view of the other has been media coverage. Mogahed said media-content analysis showed the majority of U.S. TV news coverage was “sharply negative” of Islam, whereas when Christianity was discussed on Muslim TV stations, the coverage was flat -- neither good nor bad.
Editing by Paul Casciato
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