Positive Change in Perception on Muslim-West Ties: Survey Print

doha2picPublished: 16 December

Region: Worldwide

A panel at the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Forum in Doha tackled the subject of Muslim-Western relations in the context of the post-9/11 period. James Bell, director, International Survey Research at Pew Research Centre, shared key statistics from surveys focusing on America, Europe and Russia as representative of the West and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan and Indonesia as representing Muslim perspectives.

When Western and Muslim publics were asked how they would characterise relations between Western peoples and Muslims, the “answer was, on balance, relations are bad. In Muslim majority countries, the majority in every country surveyed, except Indonesia, felt this way, and in the Western countries, majorities in Europe felt relations were bad, in the US about half felt this way, and a little over a third in Russia.” The tendency among both groups of countries was to point the finger at the other for this fact.

Pew surveys probed the perception of characteristics or traits of either Muslim or Western peoples, effectively questioning stereotypes. Among Muslims, the three most frequent characteristics associated with Westerners were “selfish, violent and greedy”. For Westerners talking about Muslims, the top three stereotype characteristics were “fanatical and violent, however inserted among those top three was honesty … Muslims tend to have more negative characteristics come to mind when thinking about Westerners than vice versa.”

As for perceptions of how women are treated in Western societies, from the perspective of Muslim societies, the “median percent of people who thought Westerners treated women well was only 44% across surveyed countries, so not a majority. Westerners were more skeptical, with only a median of 22% saying Muslims treated women with respect.”

Bell said that Muslim and Western publics did agree in terms of the prosperity we see in Muslim majority countries, being that Muslim countries ought to be more prosperous than they are today, and that government corruption was a key obstacle to economic growth. However, in Muslim countries there was also a perception that Western policies were to blame for the lack of economic growth, while in the West this was not seen as an obstacle.

Regarding religion, majorities agreed that certain religions are more prone to violence than others. Westerns thought Islam was more prone to violence, while Muslims thought it was Judaism.

Bell said that it was not all bad news, however. While the assessment is that overall relations are bad between the two groups of countries, Pew found that compared to five years ago, when asked similar questions, the percentage of people asked in the US, the UK, Germany and Russia saying that relations are bad, has decreased.

In Muslim countries, the assessment of relations has not changed. Despite perceived bad relations, majorities in the US, France and the UK say they have a favourable view of Muslims, and while in Spain and Germany the majority of people have unfavourable views of Muslims, there has been an increase in the percentage of favourable views.

However, younger people (under 30) in the US, France, Spain and Germany tend to have more positive views of Muslims than older people.

The survey also found that religious extremism is a concern in both sets of publics, although that is not to say that they perceive it the same way.

After uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, there has been a “definite embrace of democracy and democratic principles among Muslim publics surveyed, and majorities, except in Pakistan, said democracy is the preferred form of government to any other form of government.”

Majorities, specifically in Arab countries, said that they thought the Arab Spring would lead to greater democracy, so it is reasonable to consider that these kinds of changes may impact the way people in Muslim majority countries think about themselves and “my experience in polling suggests that how we think about ourselves influences how we see ourselves in the world, and how we think others relate to us and how we relate to them.”

Ahmed Younis, a data analyst for Gallup, said that the post-9/11 questions of Muslim-Western relations are no longer as relevant, and the focus of discourse needs to shift to addressing the needs of Muslim-minority groups in the West and the actual needs of Muslim societies around the world in terms of what the West can provide.

“More Muslims say the West respects Muslims than Westerners say they respect Muslims. The Muslim-Western dichotomy also relates to the disposition of Muslim minorities in the West. About 67% of Jewish-Americans say Muslim-Americans face discrimination on a daily basis, only 60% of Muslim-Americans say Muslims face discrimination on a daily basis.”

Panelists agreed that the rising xenophobia in Europe is a symptom of wider social, economic and political problems within those societies that need to be addressed in their complexity. They pointed to the fact that there is only one session mentioning 9/11 at the UNAOC Forum demonstrates the declining relevance of that event to today’s discourse, allowing positive new paradigms brought by events such as the Arab Spring to shape our perceptions.

By Ross Jackson for Gulf Times