What Does the Muslim World Really Want?

The decision to prosecute the masterminds behind the September 11th attacks in a New York City civil court instead of a military tribunal has Americans once again playing this geopolitical linguistic game where the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” become interchangeable synonyms.

While select individuals, who commit horrific acts, should be held accountable for their crimes, the global media focus on terrorist acts, attributed to radical Muslim groups, seems to suggest that anyone that utters the name Allah is by default an evil infidel chanting “Death to America.”

In an effort to explore the beliefs held by the world’s one billion Muslims, the Gallup Organization conducted the largest worldwide study of Muslim populations. Shortly after their results were published in Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, their findings were translated into a film of the same name by Unity Productions Foundation (UPF).

I caught a screening and panel discussion of this film in November 2009. Here’s a broad overview of the survey’s findings as illustrated in the film:

Who speaks for the West?

Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not on their culture or religion.

Dream jobs

When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention jihad, but rather getting a better job.

Radical rejection

Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.

Religious mainstream

Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.

Admiration of the West

What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy—the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.

Critique of the West

What Muslims around the world say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values—the same responses given by Americans when posed the same question.

Gender justice

Muslim women want equal rights and religion in their societies.

Respect

Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam.

Clerics and constitutions

The majority of those surveyed want religious leaders to have no direct role in crafting a constitution, yet favor religious law as a source of legislation.

As a transplanted New Yorker, who volunteered during the recovery efforts at Ground Zero, I was stuck by the statistic that only 7% of those Muslims surveyed felt that the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified and viewed the United States unfavorably.

Despite the media’s characterization of select mosques as breeding grounds for terrorism, none of these radicals cited their religion as the reason for justifying terrorist acts. Instead, their justifications for employing violence to bring about their ends were more in line with the views held by other political revolutionaries.

While this film begins to break open some stereotypes, the film’s director acknowledged that lack of funds rendered him unable to travel and film in Asia and Africa. So while the survey covers over 35 countries, he focused his filming in the Middle East. While one can understand these economic constraints, the lack of African and Asian Muslims featured in the film serves as yet another reminder that we still tend to equate Arab with Muslim despite the stats that indicate otherwise.

Also, most of the people gathered at this screening seemed to be those already involved in cross cultural exchange work. Time will tell how a film like this that seeks to find common ground will be received in an increasingly polarized climate where even the President Barack “Hussein” Obama is demonized for having some familial ties to Islam.

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