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America in Muslim Eyes
America in Muslim Eyes
In November 2002, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a number of scholars this question: “What will the world be like five years after a war with Iraq?” To mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, MESH asked all of the respondents to revisit their predictions.
Tuesday, March 25,2008 05:15
by John Esposito MESH

In November 2002, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a number of scholars this question: “What will the world be like five years after a war with Iraq?” To mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, MESH asked all of the respondents to revisit their predictions. This week, MESH is posting the responses it has received.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. In 2002, he wrote: “Five years after a U.S. war with Iraq, it is likely that the Arab world will be less democratic than more and that anti-Americanism will be stronger rather than weaker.” (Read his full prediction here.)

From John L. Esposito

It is both satisfying and yet depressing that my predictions five years ago have in fact been realized. Anti-Americanism has grown exponentially in the Muslim world as it has in many other parts of the world. Thus, the question “Why do they hate us?” remains important to ponder. Likewise, while the spread of democracy has been the stated goal of the Bush administration, the charge that America is does not seriously support democracy and really operates under a double standard continues to be strongly leveled against us.

As we follow up on such issues after five years, what have we learned? To begin with, we have a new tool to enhance our understanding. Rather than depending upon the opinions and predictions of “experts,” we can listen to the people in the regions themselves by using data from the Gallup World Poll, which has been conducted since 2001 around the world.

Through 50,000 hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations, we have the largest and most comprehensive poll of the Muslim world, representing the voices of more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, living in urban and rural settings

Responses to both closed and open-ended questions tell us a lot. For example, starting with anti-Americanism, our answers to the common question, “Why do they hate us?” have often been “They hate who we are—our way of life, freedoms, democracy, and gender equality.” However, if we listen to the voices of Muslim respondents, they contradict these views. When asked what they admired most about the West, the top response was the West’s technology, its value system of hard work, responsibility and rule of law and its fair political systems, democracy, human rights, free speech and gender equality.

On the other hand, when asked what they admire least about the West, among the top responses was “hatred or degradation of Islam and Muslims.” And when asked what the most important thing the United States could do to improve their quality of life, the most common response after “reduce unemployment and improve the economic infrastructure” was “stop interfering in the internal affairs of Arab/Islamic states,” “stop imposing your beliefs and policies,” “respect our political rights and stop controlling us,” and “give us our own freedom.”

Thus, while we continue to talk about the importance of democracy and self-determination for the Muslim world, majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco disagree that the United States is serious about spreading democracy in their region. In fact, looking at those we will call “Muslim democrats”—those who believe that democracy is important to their progress and future—we find that this group is more concerned about better relations with the West, but at the same time, more likely to view the United States unfavorably. Only 5 to 10 percent respond that the United States is trustworthy, friendly or treats other countries respectfully.

What of the future? A major concern for the foreseeable future will center on stopping the growth of global terrorism. While the military will continue to be needed to capture, kill and contain terrorists, the broader challenge is to limit radicalization. As data from the Muslim world reveals, while majorities are moderate, the number of politically radicalized is significant.

The Gallup Poll identified moderates and radicals by looking at those who said the 9/11 attacks were completely justified and also had an unfavorable view of the United States. Moderates, the vast majority (93 percent), said the 9/11 attacks were unjustified. The politically radicalized and thus potential supporters of extremism—7 percent—said the attacks were completely justified and view the United States unfavorably. Identifying respondents as “politically radicalized” does not mean they commit acts of violence, but rather that they are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups.

Although concern among respondents about bias and Western political interference in their affairs was widespread, the politically radicalized were far more intense in their belief that Western political, military and cultural domination is a major threat. When asked to define their greatest fears about the future of their country, the politically radicalized most frequently cite interference in their internal affairs by other countries, national security, colonization, occupation, and fear of U.S. dominance.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the politically radicalized compared to 48 percent of moderates disagree that “the U.S. will allow people in the region to ’fashion their own political future as they see fit without direct U.S. influence.’” Surprisingly, 50 percent of the politically radicalized feel more strongly that their progress will be helped by “moving toward governmental democracy” compared to 35 percent of moderates. And even more surprising, the politically radicalized (58 percent) are more likely than moderates (44 percent) to associate Arab/Islamic nations with an eagerness to have better relationships with the West.

In a post-9/11 environment in which many are caught between the contending and contentious views of the battle of experts and pseudo-experts, we now have data that can lead the discourse and to guide future policies aimed at reducing the threat of global terrorism.

More about mutual misperceptions and developing policies and programs designed to “win the minds and hearts” of Muslims around the world can be found in the just-published book based on the Gallup World Poll, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, which I have co-authored with Dalia Mogahed.

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