Gallup Poll of Muslims

What Do Muslims Think of the West?

The Washington-based Gallup Institute took on a mammoth six-year task when it opted to carry out a worldwide investigation into the Muslim mindset, and it came up with some remarkable results. Peter Philipp has been carrying out his own investigation

The Washington-based Gallup Institute took on a mammoth six-year task when it opted to carry out a worldwide investigation into the Muslim mindset, and it came up with some remarkable results.Peter Philipp has been carrying out his own investigation

A man and a child in a mosque in Germany (photo: dpa)
Western society and Muslim society are not nearly as far apart as one perhaps might think

​​The "Gallup World Poll" is a massive undertaking by any standards – the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind ever attempted. The aim of the poll is to "give ordinary people the opportunity to be heard" as well as giving political decision-makers a tool which will allow them to gain a better understanding of the people.

It quickly became apparent after 9/11 that there was a particularly urgent need to conduct a survey of opinions in the Muslim world, and Gallup set things in motion that same year by conducting polls in nine Muslim countries.

It is the first time that such polls on social, religious and political topics have been carried out in Muslim countries. In the meantime, the World Poll has been extended to take in more than 40 Muslim countries and countries with significant Muslim populations. The first results have now been made available in a 500-page report published on March 8.

Theocracy and democracy

Gallup project director Dalia Mogahed is proud of the way that these initial findings are overturning some of the West's common misconceptions about Muslims – the idea that they are against democracy, for example.

"Our survey confirms that Muslims all over the world actually admire basic democratic principles, such as the rule of law, transparency and a sympathetic and committed government," says Mogahed.

It turns out that Muslims are also very much of the opinion that religious principles have an important role to play in the structure of such a democracy. They were, therefore, not in favour of a totally secular democracy, but equally disapproving a theocracy, Mogahed confirms.

And there is no conflict between Islam and democracy. At least, no such conclusion could be drawn on the basis of the people surveyed, all of whom were also prepared to be critical of their own system and were not therefore under any pressure to conform in the answers they gave.

To the question whether the majority of Muslims believe that Islam is not compatible with democracy, Mogahed answers:

"There is no doubt that there are some things that might make one believe this to be the case, because many Muslims do not live in a democracy. What we are finding, however, is that public opinion is very much in favour of democracy. There is something else that is preventing the region's democracy from becoming properly established. It’s not that people do not believe in or want democracy, it's the fact that there are other forces at work."

Faith and freedom go hand in hand for Muslim women

Dalia Mogahed is convinced that the situation is much the same when it comes to perceptions of the role of women in Islam. Here, too, the clichés are not hard to find, but they have very little to do with the reality of everyday Muslim life.

"There seems to be a deep misunderstanding in both directions when it comes to the role of women. There are many in the West – particularly in the USA and in Europe – who have a major problem when it comes to trying to understand the status of women in Islam. When we asked the women in the Muslim communities themselves, however, we found out that their religious faith played an important part in their lives."

Many women considered their faith to be both personally important and the key to progress in their society. They placed a high value on their religion, but at the same time they also valued equal rights: the right to vote, the right to education, to work etc. And they saw no conflict between their faith and their freedom, Mogahed says.

It is interesting, for example, that in Egypt the majority of educated women were more inclined to look to religion and to find in it a source of support, whereas in Turkey, on the other hand, religion has long been suppressed as something backward. With Turkey now rapidly modernising and democratising, however, the headscarf is being seen by women there as a symbol of their personal freedom. Even of their freedom in religious development.

USA and Iran share common ground

No survey of Muslim attitudes would be complete without Iran, a country that for decades has been attempting to exemplify the model for the way ahead for Muslims with its "Islamic Republic".

"There are surprising similarities to be found when one compares opinions in USA and Iran," Mogahed says. "We found, for example, that neither Iranians nor Americans were in favour of religious leaders playing a direct role when it comes to the drafting of legislation. A majority of people in both countries, however, were of the opinion that religious principles should be permitted a guiding role in the legislative process."

In the USA, 57 per cent believe that the bible should provide the basis for the making of legislation. Nine per cent of those believed it should be the only basis. In Iran, too, a majority believes that Sharia law should be one of the sources when it comes to legislating, even if not the only one.

"We also found that there was a similarly high percentage of people who said that religion was an important part of their life," notes Mogahed. "67 per cent in the case of Americans; 73 per cent of Iranians. In Europe, however, the picture was rather different, with only around one third of people naming religion as an important feature of their lives."

Strong sense of identification with adopted country

In the case of Europe, the Gallup poll also has a special significance for a different reason. The survey results provide a clear refutation of a widely held view; one that has been around for some time and, fuelled by a number of incidents, one that is being put forward increasingly stridently.

According to this view, Muslims have a tendency to cut themselves off from their surroundings, to inhabit their own, insular "parallel society". In response to this point Dalia Mogahed comments:

"We looked at the opinions of Muslim minorities in Paris, London and Berlin and compared the views of Muslims in these three capital cities with the general attitudes prevailing in the three countries. Perhaps the most important finding was that in all three capitals, the Muslims had just as strong a sense of identification with the country – Great Britain, France or Germany – as the general population did. At the same time there was a strong identity with their faith; religious and national identities were not perceived of as mutually exclusive."

Peter Philipp

© Deutsche Welle / 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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