Dawn of a New Era?
The majority of people surveyed in a recent Abu Dhabi Gallup Center poll said that greater interaction between Muslim-majority and Western countries would be a benefit rather than a threat. Sceptics, however, believe that a real change in relations has yet to come about. Sara Reef reports
The vast majority of individuals in both Muslim-majority and Western countries surveyed in a recent Abu Dhabi Gallup Center poll believe that greater interaction between them would be a benefit rather than a threat. In fact, an average 59 per cent of people across 48 countries says it's advantageous. These findings are part of a new report, "Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the 'New Beginning'", released in November 2010 by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center.
The poll surveyed over 100,000 respondents across 55 countries between 2006 and 2010. The report challenges political scientist Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory by showing that the majority of people in countries surveyed perceive Muslim-Western interaction as a benefit, rather than a threat.
The report reveals that half of Muslims believe the West does not respect Muslim societies and to do so, it should abstain from desecrating religious symbols. They also want to see more Muslim characters featured accurately in movies, which is surprising because it demonstrates the power of film in contributing to increasing respect between Muslim societies and Americans.
Perhaps most importantly, researchers say religion and politics play a key role in determining individuals' desire to engage.
Political differences as the cause of tension
Forty per cent of Muslims surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region believe political differences are the primary cause of Muslim-Western tensions, and are more likely to believe violent conflicts can be avoided. As for people in the United States and Canada, 35 per cent think political differences are the cause of such tensions while 36 per cent think the cause is religious.
Those not ready for increased interaction between the Muslim world and the West are more likely to see these tensions grounded in religious differences. Individuals who consider religion to be a source of the Muslim-Western divide are much less optimistic about avoiding conflict. According to Gallup, those individuals who blame religion as a source of tension are not ready for increased interaction and are likely to remain so indefinitely.
Education influences views
The Gallup poll also shows a strong correlation between education and one's readiness to view increased Muslim-Western interaction as a benefit. The majority of individuals with a secondary school qualification or higher are likely to view increased interaction as a benefit, regardless of whether they are from a Muslim society or a Western country.
Moving forward, Gallup recommends that Muslim and Western society leaders should emphasise the resolution of political issues rather than religious conflicts. This should be done by creating policies that are fair to both Muslim-majority and Western countries and take culturally appropriate differences into account.
An example of this might be easing visa restrictions for students or tourists from the Muslim world that are interested in visiting the United States. This gesture would increase the number of Muslim tourists in the country, thereby enhancing cultural exchanges and promoting improved understanding.
Recommendations for conflict areas
The last section of the report focuses on perceptions of people in three acute conflict areas: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel and the Palestinian territories. People were asked their opinions on daily realities and increased Muslim-Western interactions. Gallup included in the report policy recommendations to address local needs in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, no recommendations for doing the same in Israel or the Palestinian Territories were offered.
Since this conflict continues to be one of the largest sources of tension between Muslim societies and the United States, readers of the report would have benefited from recommendations on this issue. But it is precisely because this is such a contentious issue that Gallup may have chosen to avoid making any recommendations.
Following US President Barak Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo there has been an increase in Muslim-Western exchanges, such as "programs promoting entrepreneurship, student and scholarly exchanges, partnerships to eradicate disease, as well as programs to increase women's education in majority Muslim societies." However, sceptics believe real change has yet to occur. In early 2010, approval of US leadership decreased in several Arab countries, perhaps because Obama didn't meet expectations of change in the Arab world.
It also makes one thing clear: although we have made some progress in improving Muslim-Western relations, there is still a lot of work to be done.
© Common Ground News Service
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Sara Reef is Director of Cross Cultural Initiatives at the New York NGO Intersections International.