SHAFAQNA – As part of a Global Attitudes Project, Pew Forum released an international survey focusing on Muslim and Western perceptions of each other and on the Muslim experience in Europe. The poll surveyed more than 14,000 people in 13 nations: India, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Spain. A survey of Muslim populations in the four European countries was conducted in partnership with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In a wide-ranging interview at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Amaney Jamal, assistant professor in the department of politics at Princeton University and a specialist in the study of Muslim public opinion, commented on the survey’s findings and their implications. Jamal is also a senior advisor for a Pew Research Center project on a comprehensive study of the views and attitudes of Muslim Americans. The Forum is a partner in this year-long survey project, which will be completed by next summer. In the interview, Jamal discusses, among other things, the negative perceptions Westerners and Muslims have of each other, the role of the media in perpetuating stereotypes and what the findings mean for U.S. foreign policy.
Jamal starts by pointing out how the results of the survey reveal a divide between the Western and the Islamic worlds; however, the data do not reveal whether the divide is growing or not. There is a huge tension between the two worlds and it is a result of the mutual lack of trust between the two worlds. “the Arab-Israeli and Afghanistan conflicts, there is a total loss of trust in the Muslim world of all things American or Western… Similarly, the Muslim world is not effectively communicating with the Western world.” The interviewer, Mark O’Keefe, the Associate Director and editorial at Pew Forum, continues to draw a comparison between Muslims in the US, and those in Western Europe: On the topic of democracy and Islam, you do see some hope in the survey findings from Western Europe. Are you optimistic there? Jamal: What we see among the Western European Muslim population is great enthusiasm reflected in percentages of more than 75 percent and 80 percent of people who believe Islam and democracy are compatible. That’s because they are living experience and proof of the compatibility of the two. They are maintaining a cultural, religious tradition, and also enjoying the freedoms of democracy. Then, Jamal starts addressing the issues which both enhance and hinder communication and dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. I think what’s not working, or what we’re underestimating, is the influence and power of media, including satellite television, to circulate irresponsible statements made by public officials on both sides, the dehumanizing of Westerners in the eyes of Muslims and of Muslims in the eyes of Westerners.
The U.S. has acknowledged the problem and that is why it is funding an Arabic language satellite television network for the Middle East. But we’re not doing much to combat the stereotypes that exist. Muslims want Westerners to think of them more respectfully, to think of them as equals. Westerners don’t see Muslims as thinking similarly to them. When it comes down to it, humans think alike, but we have to listen to one another more carefully. That type of communication is missing. Regarding the stereotypes Jamal mentions, she explains that If we were to survey popular movies that have captured the interest of Muslims and Americans that come out of Hollywood, the pattern in those movies is often of a fundamentalist Muslim raging wildly for some lunatic reason. The same pattern of portraying the Muslim “other” can be seen in the findings of the Pew survey. Again, Muslims are not seen as tolerant. They are seen as fanatics, not respecting democracy. And yet, if you deal with Muslims on a daily basis — and I don’t say this because I’m Muslim — you see this is not the reality. I am also saddened by the fact that Muslims also tend to misunderstand what Westerners are all about: They see Westerners as arrogant, greedy and selfish — through the lens of colonialism. The more erroneous and pervasive these stereotypes, the more justification it gives people to hold images of the other as less human, which ultimately leads to conflict. Once you dehumanize another people, it becomes easier to use a military option against those people. Answering how she sees Islamic media portraying the West, Jamal answered: As a society obsessed with sex, drugs and alcohol, a society that doesn’t understand the larger meaning in life. And there is nothing further from the truth. When you know Americans and Westerners and you know about their values, they’re very committed to many of the same values that Muslims take pride in holding and cherishing.
It is not that there is a cultural divide; it is that we have constructed this cultural divide. And what this survey report illustrates is that we’ve been all too successful in constructing this cultural divide, this constructed dichotomy of good and evil. Which side you are on determines who is called good and who is called evil. The survey shows that Muslims in Muslim countries view the West as immoral. Is this an Islamic perception of Western culture gleaned from movies, TV and the Internet, or a perception of government policy, such as the Iraq war? Or is it a combination of factors? I think it’s certainly a combination. I think Muslims know the West through the type of shows and movies that are broadcast in the region. The type of movies that will sell are those that are either overtly violent or tend to be more sexual. That’s unfortunate. Muslims then think that American culture stands for alcoholism and relationships that are outside of the boundaries of marriage. Those are still big taboos in the Muslim world. So you are dealing with a very conservative, traditional society on these issues. And what they see from the West is basically the flaunting of these immoral acts in the media. Muslims also hear news stories of teenage pregnancy and child molestation, and these stories are given increasingly more attention in the Muslim press than they are even here. In the minds of Muslims, you have this sad civilization in the West that is trying to dictate to the rest of the world how to live their lives. There is a strong conviction that the Western world does not have the moral foundation to be dictating to Muslims how to lead a decent life.
The interview ends with O’Keefe wondering about the attitude of Muslims regarding the 911 attacks and the reason why the majority of the public in several Muslim countries, including 65 percent in Indonesia, does not believe Arabs were responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington: Jamal explains: In parts of the Muslim world, there’s a sense of victimization and the feeling that 9/11 epitomizes the culmination of Western imperialism. In their opinion, 9/11 set the stage for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for complete U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. needed a reason, a justification, to go into Iraq and 9/11 provided it. People from these regions believe this. People wonder how 19 hijackers ordered and directed by a man in a cave can attack the largest nation, which also owns a vast military arsenal. They say it’s simply impossible, that the U.S. wanted it to happen so it could set the stage for complete domination of the region. They believe the U.S. doesn’t care about people, doesn’t care about their religion and that, in fact, implicating their religion serves U.S. interests in a grandiose fashion. That, I think, is what’s more remarkable about this disbelief about 9/11. It’s not that Muslims are in denial, or however you want to characterize it. It is that there’s no trust. The only thing that they understand about the West is that the West is out to get them.
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