Islam's unheard voices

It is time for the West to listen and learn from Muslim moderates and radicals alike, insists Cynthia Keppley Mahmood

July 31, 2008

In these pages six years ago I called for a dialogue with Islamic extremists rather than a war with them ("Why I believe we need to talk to extremists", 12 July 2002), arguing that the War on Terror as conceived then could not be won. That essay evoked a wide response, with many people agreeing strongly - among them many of the families of 9/11 victims - but some accused me of a sort of treason.

Since then, new information has come out that I believe strengthens my opinion considerably.

The question "Why do Muslims hate us?" creeps into many discussions in the West. In the United States, people are likely to believe that the answer to this query lies in "our freedom", "our success" or "our way of life", which Muslims are supposed to envy or despise. But today, we have an answer to this important question in the form of a Gallup poll interpreted by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed in their book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (2007).

The sample they draw on is based on 50,000 hour-long, face-to-face interviews across 40 predominantly Muslim nations. Interviewees were asked if they felt that the attacks of 9/11 were justified and if they viewed the United States with disfavour. Nine out of ten Muslims did not believe the 9/11 attacks were justified and did not view the US with disfavour. A mere 7 per cent responded affirmatively. Who are these people who think positively of the attacks on the United States?

Much of what Esposito and Mogahed found is contrary to popular wisdom in the West. Politically radical Muslims are, they found, not more religious than moderate Muslims. They are, however, on average more educated and affluent than the moderates, more satisfied with their standard of living and quality of life, and more optimistic about their personal lives getting better. They admire the West for its technology, freedom of speech and hard work, and believe that Arab and Islamic nations are eager to have better relations with the West. They cite as their biggest fear "occupation" or "US domination".

A majority of all Muslims in the survey said that they wanted a system of government that would combine faith with democracy. When asked how the West could better its relations with the world of Islam, the most common responses were: respect Islam, treat us as equals, don't degrade Muslims in the media, and offer assistance to Muslim countries in technology, jobs and economic development.

As a scholar who regularly visits Islamic parts of the world and does research with radicals as well as moderates, I can say that the results of this survey offer welcome quantitative validation of what many of us who know Muslims already know subjectively. That is that the United States has created a dangerous myth of "the Islamo-fascist" that bears little resemblance to real activists now carrying the banner of al-Qaeda and other organisations in the Muslim world. They are deeply committed, there is no sign that they will give up any time soon, and a real leader of the United States or any other Western country should have the courage to face who they really are rather than ramping up rhetoric that does more harm than good.

Recognise one thing: 7 per cent may sound like a small proportion, but out of 1.3 billion Muslims, that comes to 91 million. That is a sobering number. It is not a number one can handle with a purely military campaign. The "War on Terror" will have to be reconceptualised as a much broader rethinking of how the West positions itself in the world. We in the US will have to consider a wider framing of how we engage in dialogue with other nations if we are to have a real hope of sustainable success in coexisting in a plural world.

Americans should consider this in their upcoming choice of a new president. Is the US to continue on a military path that must ultimately be genocidal and suicidal? Or can this superpower also have the wisdom and the humility to enter into a serious conversation about historical wrongs and future possibilities in which everyone can be stakeholders?

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