What Muslims Think

(1) Only a small minority of Muslims are radicalised
(2) The radicals are driven by politics not by religion
(3) Muslims are not against democracy
(4) Muslims want the West to respect Islam

Over the six years 2001 to 2007 Gallup conducted tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations or nations with substantial Muslim populations.

This is a sample representing more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims and makes this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done.

Gallup posed questions on the minds of millions of people: Is Islam to blame for terrorism? Why is there so much anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? Who are the extremists? Where are the moderates? What do Muslim women really want? And many,more.

The full results are not in the public domain as it costs $28,500 to purchase the full results of all the surveys.

But what has come out are selected highlights and conclusions presented in the form of a book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed.

The authors draw four main conclusions.

(1) Only a small minority of Muslims are radicalised, and potential supporters of extremism, some 7%, the great majority are much like people in the West in what they want in life.

(2) The radicals are driven by politics not by religion. They don’t like the West’s policies towards Islamic countries and they don’t like the influence that the West has.

(3) Muslims are not against democracy. They want a model that politically integrates faith and democratic values.

(4) Muslims believe that the most important way to improve relations between the West and Islam is for the West to respect Islam and treat Muslims as equals.

Let us examine these conclusions and what they might mean.

(1) Only a small minority of Muslims are radicalised …. and potential supporters of extremism, some 7%, the great majority are much like people in the West in what they want in life.

For anyone who travels, keeps themselves informed, or has Muslim friends (which is very likely in countries like the UK) it seems reasonable the majority of Muslims are much like people in the West. You don’t need to do 50,000 interviews.

But Esposito and Mogahed set great store by the 7% figure, the very low proportion, in their opinion, of Muslims who might support extremism. This number was questioned as follows:

…. The core argument of the book is that only 7% of Muslims are “politically radicalized,” and that “about 9 in 10 Muslims are moderate.” The authors explain (pp. 69-70):

According to the Gallup Poll, 7% of respondents think that the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified and view the United States unfavorably…. the 7%, whom we’ll call “the politically radicalized” because of their radical political orientation… are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups.

So an essential precondition for being “politically radicalized” is to believe that 9/11 was “completely” justified. The pool of support is only 7%.

Yet a year and a half ago, Esposito and Mogahed used a different definition of “radical,” …. namely:

Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as radicals.

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2) are classified as moderates.

Thus these same authors previously defined “radicals” not only as Muslims who thought 9/11 was “completely justified” (5 on their scale), but those who thought it was “largely justified” (4 on their scale).

So for their new book, they’ve drastically narrowed their own definition of radical, to get to that 7% figure. And they’ve also spread the impression in the media that the other 93% are moderates.

…. That’s certainly how the press has interpreted it. Here, for example, is the Agence France-Presse report on Esposito’s “findings”: About 93 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews.

Can there be a more distorted interpretation than that?

[An extract from “Dr Esposito and the seven-percent solution”. For full article see here. The article is prefaced with this “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit]

This questions severely the objectivity of Esposito and Mogahed’s interpretation of the Gallup results.

In any event, whether its one in ten or one in five Muslims who believe targeting innocent civilians is justified, it’s a lot of Muslims.

(2) The radicals are driven by politics not by religion. They don’t like the West’s policies towards Islamic countries and they don’t like the influence that the West has.

Esposito and Mogahed also say:

A significantly greater proportion of politically radicalized than moderates cite Western cultural penetration, Western immorality and moral corruption as the top reasons for resentment. 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. In contrast, moderates rank economic problems as their top concern.

…. The politically radicalized also, in significantly higher percentages, emphasize preservation of their culture, traditions and principles as well as their holy places and Islamic values as admirable aspects of the Islamic world. Belief in the Islamic heritage, which is critical to their progress, is also perceived to be in danger of being weakened by the West’s denigration of Islam ….

A separation of politics and religion by radicals in the Islamic world doesn’t ring true. For radicals, of all people, Islam is a political, legal and religious system all rolled into one. It has no separation of powers. (See comments below section (3) regarding democracy).

This intepretation of Gallup’s results calls for a modern history lesson but this is not the place for that. Some points will have to suffice.

(1) The Islamic Middle East has been fully in charge of its own destiny for several generations. For example, the present regime in Egypt is the direct decendant of Nasser and his nationalist movement.

(2) Many would argue that has been the case for even much longer.

(3) You can see what results from an Islamic Middle East rejecting outside influences in the several hundred years history of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate prior to its collapse following World War 1.

(4) These radicals object to the West simply because it exists!

Esposito and Mogahed also make the point that the politically radicalized are on average more educated and affluent than moderates.

…. The conventional wisdom and intuitive sense of many has been that extremism and terrorism are driven by profound psychological, economic, political or religious problems: deranged, social misfits, unemployed, poorly educated, reject democracy and modernization, religious fanatics or zealots.

Thus, there has often been a reluctance to see extremists as otherwise intelligent, rational people responding to perceived grievances. Within weeks after 9/11, the media reported the “stunning discovery” that the attackers were not from the poor, unemployed and dispossessed.

Why do Esposito and Mogahed say this?

Firstly, in will be news to many, if not the great majoity, that they made a “stunning discovery”. They always knew that educated and even wealthy Muslims were behind much of Islamic terrorism. That the educated and sometimes the wealthy produce troublemakers has been true throughout history and especially in modern times.

Secondly, are they suggesting that we do what these radicals want?

(3) Muslims are not against democracy. They want a model that politically integrates faith and democratic values

The contradictions in the view that one can combine real democracy and religious dogma to run a country are well illustrated in a review of Esposito and Mogahed’s book by Hillel Fradkin.

…. Muslims apparently want a different kind of “democracy,” one which avoids moral and other kinds of risks. For example, although they would like freedom of speech, they would not like it to be unlimited, such that it might permit speech offensive to religious sensibilities. In other words, blasphemy laws should limit it.

As for other “freedoms,” the authors provide no information. In particular, we do not know whether Muslims accept “freedom of religion.” This is a most peculiar omission since it is essential to a clear understanding of contemporary Muslim views of democracy.

But perhaps all of this is to be understood in light of the finding that Muslims want to ground their “democracy” partly or entirely in Sharia or Islamic law. The authors hasten to assure the readers that this does not mean that “Muslim democracy” would actually be a “theocracy,” since their respondents largely reject the prospective rule of Muslim jurists.

But this leaves the matter totally confused.

If Sharia is to be the partial or entire base of future “democratic” governments, who is constituted to decide what Sharia prescribes, other than the jurists to whom its interpretation has always been and is still entrusted?

We are also left in doubt about a whole set of issues, including whether or not “Muslim democracy” would permit religious freedom of the sort characteristic of American and other liberal democracies.

Would the status of non-Muslims—especially Christians—be governed by traditional Sharia prescriptions for non-Muslim minorities, which involve various legal disabilities and inequities? Or would they be fully equal? Would non-Muslims be permitted to run for and hold public office?

For full review see here

Perhaps Iran is an example of the “democracy” that these Muslims want.

The Sharia dimension of this muddled thinking is further emphasised in another point that Esposito and Mogahed make.

The heightened sense of the West’s threat to political freedom and to Islamic identity has reinforced the politically radicalized’s desire for Islamic law.

While both moderates (83 percent) and politically radicalized (91 percent) want Shari‘a as a source of law, a significantly higher percentage of politically radicalized (59 percent vs. 32 percent of moderates) want to see Shari‘a as the only source of law.

This may reflect their desire to limit the power of rulers and regimes that they regard as authoritarian, “un-Islamic” and corrupt.

That last paragraph is a gem. Just think of that non-authoritarian government in Tehran.

(4) Muslims believe that the most important way to improve relations between the West and Islam is for the West to respect Islam and treat Muslims as equals.

This is a disturbing result. Muslims want something that is impossible. It shows how indoctrinated Muslims are with the superiority of their religion. It shows the huge gap between Muslims and non-Muslims

I can respect people and treat them as equals because they are a human beings with strengths and weaknesses just like me. I can respect people for what they achieve. But I can’t respect them for believing something I don’t believe.

And, I cannot respect something, Islam, which I believe to be false.

To the extent that some people find it a source of moral guidance and comfort that’s fine. But much of Islam is nonsense which produces conflict within the Muslim world itself and with non-Muslims.

A solution to this “disrespect for Islam” described by Esposito and Mogahed just further emphasises the problem.

The importance of religious and cultural identity. Issues of religious identity are very important to both politically radicalized and moderates. The most frequent response to what they admire most about themselves was “faithfulness to their religious beliefs” and the top statement they associate with Arab/Muslim nations is “attachment to their spiritual and moral values is critical to their progress”.

…. For both groups, the West’s “Disrespect for Islam” ranks high on the list of what they most resent. Therefore, as one might expect, when asked what the Arab/Muslim world could do to improve relations with Western societies, the top response from both the politically radicalized and moderates who offered a response was “improve the presentation of Islam to the West, present Islamic values in a positive manner.” [Emphasis added]

How can you put in a positive light such beliefs as:

• A Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man. See here

• Muslim conversion, apostasy, is punishable by death. See here and here

• A woman’s evidence is worth half that of a man’s. See here

• A Muslim man may easily divorce his wife but it is very difficult for a Muslim woman to divorce her husband. See here and here

• Stoning to death is a fit punishment for adultery. See here and here

• Islam has no separation of powers, being a political, legal and religious system rolled into one

• It is the duty of Muslims to spread Islam by whatever means possible until eveyone submits to the will of Allah.

And so on.


John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Dalia Mogahed is a Gallup Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

The book does not actually present the poll. It provides a small and partial account of the responses to some questions, but fails to include even one table or chart of data. It does not even provide a clear list of the questions that were asked. The appendix, where one might expect to find questionnaires, charts, and tables, provides only a short narrative discussion of Gallup’s sampling techniques and general mode of operation.