Try Listening to the Muslim World
We would be more secure by trying to understand how Muslims think and feel.
The new watchword phrase for the war is “the way forward in Iraq.”
To extricate himself from the quicksand of bad news from that conflict, President Bush came up with the theme just before his surprise June 13, visit to Baghdad. He told reporters days earlier that he was going to Camp David “with a lot of my Cabinet members to discuss the way forward in Iraq, to analyze the new government, to look carefully at what their blueprint for the future looks like, and to figure out how we can help.”
Yet at a time when fewer than one-third of Americans believe that the Iraq war has made us more secure, how is a deeper commitment to winning the war going “the way forward”?
Isn’t it possible that we would be more secure by trying to understand how Muslims think and feel?
One can see why our policy towards the Arab world doesn’t include much trust. After U.S. bombing killed the infamous terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqarwi, a newscast said that a sizable percentage of Sunni Muslims didn’t believe that Mr. al-Zarqawi ever existed - they believe he was an American invention used to cover up the murder of Iraqi Sunnis.
Watching the news, one would think that all Muslims are either wildly fanatic or wildly irrational.
In John Updike’s latest novel, The Terrorist, the hero is a suburban Muslim teenager from New Jersey bent on becoming a suicide bomber. His rationale? “These devils want to take away my God.”
One-sided perspectives always are flawed, as this case proves. In the past year, the Gallup Poll has made a major effort to survey public opinion in 10 Muslim countries (Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia). It’s no surprise to find out that there is a highly unfavourable view of the United States. But what about these findings?
• A majority of Muslims in all 10 countries had a favourable opinion of the European Union and thought the EU could serve as an agent of peace. This contradicts the mantra that Muslims hate the West and that a clash of civilizations is inevitable.
• A majority of Muslims support freedom of speech, assembly and religion. • The same majority believes that women should have a right to vote, drive and work outside the home.
I doubt that even the Bush administration’s highest-level advisers on the war know these facts. Isn’t it time they did?
The Iraq war was founded on misinformation and lack of communication. We would be headed “the way forward” by correcting that as soon as possible.
For example, a basic question with regard to the war on terror is how many Muslims are religious extremists. The answer: far fewer than anyone tends to believe. According to the Gallup Poll, only 8 per cent of Muslims hold extremist views (for example, they think the 9/11 attacks were justified). Fifty-five per cent are “skeptical moderates” (they don’t like the United States but don’t believe that 9/11 was justified). Fully 35 per cent are pro-American (they like the United States and also feel that 9/11 was unjustified).
These facts make me breathe a little easier. I see a ray of light, and we certainly need one. Of course, the Islamic world resents us, but not because it wants a clash of civilizations. If you bother to ask Muslims, as the Gallup Poll did, you’ll find that what they resent is our lack of respect for their culture and our attempts to control the Muslim world by force. They are afraid we want their oil, and there’s still the perennial opposition to our support of Israel.
We desperately need an international panel that will have as its only goal communicating with the Muslim world, asking it what it thinks and offering to talk about any grievance.
The Gallup Organization has made a major start, and it is willing, through Gallup University, to expand its efforts by inviting anyone who wants to participate in a dialogue. Since the No. 1 grievance among members of the Islamic world - and this cuts across all 10 countries where the poll was taken - is America’s disrespect for Islam, what better way to show respect than to talk as equals? I know, because for the past two years I’ve been working to set up grassroots communities throughout the country that are bound together as the Alliance for a New Humanity. They seek new ways to reduce conflict and break down barriers among cultures. The beauty of understanding is that it helps clear up one of the chief causes of war, which is misunderstanding. Frankly, I’m tired of seeing a billion Muslims as one bogeyman. Isn’t it time we asked them who they really are?
(The writer is a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, president of the Alliance for a New Humanity, and author of “Peace Is the Way” and 41 other books. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org)