Survey Finds ‘Great Divide’ in Muslim and Western Opinions

A "great divide" separates the worldviews of Muslims and Westerners, according to the results of a major new survey which suggests that European Muslims, who held the most tolerant views, could be a bridge between the two groups.

"Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical, violent, and as lacking tolerance," according to an analysis of the survey by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project. "Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral, and greedy – as well as violent and fanatical."

But the survey also found that was less true among European Muslims. "In many ways, the views of Europe’s Muslims represent a middle ground between the way Western publics and Muslims in the Middle East and Asia view each other," it said.

The survey and analysis, which were released by Pew here Thursday, found that positive views held by Muslims of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and terror tactics associated with him have declined over the past year, quite substantially in Pakistan and Jordan, where suicide attacks killed more than 50 people in Amman hotels over the last year.

At the same time, the percentage of Muslims who believe that Arabs did not carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon has increased. Majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and among the Muslim community in Britain doubt that Arabs had any role.

The survey, which was carried out in 13 countries from the beginning of April until mid-May, found that negative views of Muslims have become especially pronounced in Germany and Spain, where only 36 percent and 29 percent of respondents, respectively, expressed favorable opinions of Muslims. Both marked major declines from the last Pew poll one year ago.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds of French and British citizens said they had favorable views of Muslims. Fifty-six percent of Russians agreed with that opinion, as did 54 percent of U.S. respondents.

Interestingly, British and French respondents were the most upbeat as well about the prospects for democracy in Muslim countries. Six in 10 respondents in France and Britain said democracy can work well there, while only 49 percent of U.S. citizens and an average of four in 10 Spanish and Germans agreed.

More than 60 percent of Indonesians and Jordanians said they had favorable views of Christians, followed by 48 percent of Egyptians.

But only about one in four Pakistanis described their views as favorable, while only about one in seven Turks agreed, a possible reflection of growing anti-European and anti-U.S. opinion resulting from negotiations over Turkey’s admission to the European Union and the popular anger there against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

By contrast, Muslims living in Europe were much more positive about Christians, one of a number of indications in the survey that European Muslims are not only considerably less alienated from the societies in which they reside than many recent analyses have suggested, but also that they could act as a moderating force in the Muslim-Western divide.

Nine out of 10 French Muslims said they had positive views of Christians, followed by eight out of 10 Spanish Muslims (in spite of the strongly anti-Muslim views of most Spanish). Roughly seven out of 10 English and German Muslims also said their views of Christians were favorable

Of all Muslim populations surveyed, French Muslims were by far the most positive toward Jews – 71 percent said they had favorable opinions, roughly twice the percentage of Muslims in Britain, Germany, and Spain.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, views of Jews were far more negative: in Indonesia, 17 percent of respondents said they had favorable opinions; in Turkey, 15 percent; in Pakistan 6 percent; and in the two Arab countries countries surveyed, Egypt and Jordan, only 2 and 1 percent, respectively.

As to relations between Muslims and Westerners, majorities in 10 out of 12 countries described them as "generally bad." In Europe, the most negative views were found in Germany (70 percent said "generally bad") and France (66 percent). Fifty-five percent of U.S. respondents described it the same way.

Turkey was the most negative of the predominantly Muslim nations, with nearly two-thirds opting for "generally bad" – although 77 percent of Nigerian Muslims made the same assessment – followed by Egypt (58 percent), Jordan (54 percent), and Indonesia (53 percent). Pakistan, where a slight plurality said that relations were "generally good," was the only exception.

The Pew analysis concluded that Muslims hold "an aggrieved view of the West – they are much more likely than Americans or Western Europeans to blame Western policies for their own lack of prosperity. For their part, Western publics instead point to government corruption, lack of education, and Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest obstacles to Muslim prosperity."

Thus, Muslims, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, tended to blame the controversy over the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed earlier this year on Western disrespect for Islam. Majorities in the U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, blamed the crisis on Muslim intolerance.

In many respects, the two groups hold mirror images, however. When asked to choose among a list of negative traits Muslim and non-Muslim respondents saw in the other group, the survey found that Muslims in the Middle East and Asia – often by large majorities – generally view Westerns as selfish, arrogant, and violent. European Muslims, particularly those in France and Spain, however, tended to be far less damning about the traits of non-Muslims than in predominantly Muslim countries.

At the same time, majorities of non-Muslims in Europe found Muslims to be fanatical and violent, although only minorities in Britain, the U.S., and France subscribed to that view.

The survey’s findings suggested that French and Spanish Muslims were the least alienated from their surrounding societies, even if the general public in Spain was found to be the most hostile toward Muslims of any of the European societies covered by the poll.

Four in ten non-Muslim Spaniards said they believe that most or many Muslims in their country support Islamic extremism, but only 12 percent of Spanish Muslims agreed. Of the four minority publics surveyed, British Muslims are the most critical of their country and "come closer to views of Muslims around the world in their opinions of Westerners."

The religious divide was found to be surprisingly sharp in Nigeria, where, for example, nearly three out of four Muslims and Christians ascribed negative traits to the other groups. Nigerian Muslims also constituted a "conspicuous exception" to the trend toward declining confidence in bin Laden in the Muslim world.

More than six in 10 Nigerian Muslims said they have at least some confidence in the al-Qaeda leader, up from 44 percent in 2003. In addition, nearly half of Nigeria’s Muslims said that suicide bombings could be justified often or sometimes in the defense of Islam.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.