Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think

In a post-9/11 world, many Americans conflate the mainstream Muslim majority with the beliefs and actions of an extremist minority. But what do the world’s Muslims think about the West, or about democracy, or about extremism itself? Who Speaks for Islam? spotlights this silenced majority. The book is the product of a mammoth six-year study in which the Gallup Organization conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations — urban and rural, young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate. It asks the questions everyone is curious about: Why is the Muslim world so anti-American? Who are the extremists? Is democracy something Muslims really want? What do Muslim women want? The answers to these and other pertinent, provocative questions are provided not by experts, extremists, or talking heads, but by empirical evidence — the voices of a billion Muslims.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, U.S. public officials seemed to have no idea whether or not many Muslims supported the bombings. This troubled Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, who felt that “no one in Washington had any idea what 1.3 billion Muslims were thinking, and yet we were working on intricate strategies that were going to change the world for all time.” Clifton commissioned his company to undertake the enormous job.

The result is Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews representing 1.3 billion Muslims who reside in more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have sizable Muslim populations. Representing more than 90% of the world’s Muslim community, it makes this poll the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind.

What the data reveal and the authors illuminate may surprise you:

* Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable.
* Large majorities of Muslims would guarantee free speech if it were up to them to write a new constitution AND they say religious leaders should have no direct role in drafting that constitution.
* Muslims around the world say that what they LEAST admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values — the same answers that Americans themselves give when asked this question.
* When asked about their dreams for the future, Muslims say they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
* Muslims say the most important thing Westerners can do to improve relations with their societies is to change their negative views toward Muslims and respect Islam.

The research suggests that conflict between Muslims and the West is NOT inevitable and, in fact, is more about policy than principles. “However,” caution Esposito and Mogahed, “until and unless decision makers listen directly to the people and gain an accurate understanding of this conflict, extremists on all sides will continue to gain ground.”

Who Speaks for Islam? is an important book that challenges conventional wisdom and sheds greater light on what motivates Muslims worldwide. It is a must-read for anyone committed to creating peace and security in our lifetime.



Kerry Walters  

Everybody may have a right to his or her own opinion, but this doesn’t mean that all opinions are equally right. What separates mere opinion from reasoned judgment, at least when it comes to empirical claims, is a hard and judicious analysis of available data. The more heated the topic under discussion, the more important it is to have facts that back up positions. Otherwise, those who are most passionate, but not necessarily most informed, can carry the day.Since at least 9/11, American pundits and people in the street (and a President) have made lots of claims about Islam. Everyone who reads the papers or watches television can recite them by heart: Muslims hate Americans because of our freedoms. Muslims despise democracy. Muslims are out to colonize Europe. The more devout a Muslim is, the more likely he or she is to become a terrorist. Muslims want theocratic governments. There’s an inevitable and insoluble culture clash between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. And on and on it goes.The extraordinary value of Who Speaks for Islam? is that the authors, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed appeal to hard data from the Gallup World Poll (GWP) to examine these and other common U.S. opinions about Muslims. For six years, GWP interviewed tens of thousands of Muslims in over 35 nations, collecting a sample that represented 90% of the world’s Muslim population (1.3 billion). The results–the hard data–are not just surprising. They’re shocking. They suggest that almost every single thing that Americans think we know about Islam and Muslims are distortions. As such, Who Speaks for Islam? is a bracing reality check that, if read by enough of us, can change minds and policies.

Let me just mention two sets of data that go counter to two popular opinions about Islam. One has to do with sharia and the other with freedom of speech (and civil liberties in general).

The U.S. perception is that Muslims want to establish legal systems based exclusively on harsh sharia, or religious laws. But in fact, polled Muslims indicate something different. In most countries, only a minority of respondants want Sharia as the only source of law. In only 5 countries–Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh–do respondants want Sharia as the only source of law. Most respondants think that an ideal legal system is based in part but not exclusively on Sharia. Ironically, a 2006 survey revealed that a full 46% of Americans think the Bible should a “a source,” and 9% think it should be the “only” source, of legislation. 42% of Americans think religious leaders should be directly involved in writing laws, and 55% think the idea is awful–almost exactly the same figures about Muslim religious leaders and the law that come out of Iran (pp. 48-49).

Another common assumption is that Muslims dislike free speech, and the worldwide protests against the now infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed are frequently cited as evidence. But vast numbers of polled Muslims insist that they admire many Western civil liberties. Their resentment against the U.S. isn’t its freedoms so much as what they perceive as “the West’s hatred and denigration of Islam; the Western belief that Arabs and Muslims are inferior; and their fear of Western intervention, domination, or occupation” (p. 141). So what drove the protests against the Danish cartoons for most Muslims wasn’t a hatred of freedom of speech, but shock at what was perceived as disrespect of a religious figure venerated by Muslims. Interestingly, many non-Muslims agree that freedom of speech should be limited when it comes to ridiculing religious figures or using racist slurs. 57% of (non-Muslim) British and 45% of (non-Muslim) French thought the Danish cartoons shouldn’t be protected by freedom of speech. Similarly, more than 75% of both populations would forbid cartoons making light of the Holocaust, and 86% of both would disallow racist cartoons (pp. 142-145). Once again, things just aren’t as simple as the one-liner “Muslims are against freedom of speech” makes them out to be.

Are there genuine differences between Muslims and non-Muslims? Of course there are. But understanding wherein real differences as opposed to imaginary ones lie is the first step toward genuine dialogue.


Dr. Saqib Qureshi

A good book, which is especially useful to people unfamiliar with the Muslim world. I would highly recommend it to non-Muslims and Muslims alike.Its positives are that it is especially revealing about Muslims societies and people, capturing their perspectives on a wide range of issues including feminism, terrorism and development; and then secondly in contrasting these perspectives with those of Europeans and Americans. The results are really quite surprising. The third good thing about this text is that it is highly read-able. At only 170 small-ish reading pages of large-ish font size, it takes about a half day to go through.Its negatives are few. The one that struck me was that the book is based on reems of Gallup data – none of which is presented, even in the appendices. The reader is presented with isolated snippets of data, and I would have liked to see a more comprehensive and robust presentation of data from which to draw my own interpretations. Somebody might also raise the point that this is not really an academic or ‘intellectual’ book – but in fairness, I don’t think either author intended for it to be so.


Matthew Smith “Roger Mexico”

Here readers have finally been given the unglamorous truth, and that is that the US and the West are not engaged in a life and death war of civilization with the East. Instead we are faced with a people that we don’t understand, and instead of our media and political leaders providing us with accurate descriptions of the Muslim people we are provided caricatures. These caricatures sensationalize this conflict and ensures that viewers will tune in and voters will turn out, but what it hasn’t provided us with is an intelligent, adult conversation in which we the consumers are treated as sophisticated human beings capable of complex thoughts beyond sloganeering. This study hasn’t really offered anything revelatory other than to suggest that over a billion Muslims are in fact human beings and are not a monolith.This study confirms what most level headed analysts and experts on the East and Muslims have been saying for years, and that is just like every social, religious or ethnic group a certain percentage is going to be radical and dangerous while the vast majority will then reside somewhere in the middle. This means that, while we still face a significant threat from radical Islam, we face a much more significant threat if we exacerbate this problem by focusing all our efforts on smashing this dangerous minority at the risk of alienating the greater majority. The main thing readers need to take away from this book is that we can win the war of ideas without having to fight real wars on the ground.One of the most important points of this book was that it really verbalized one of the areas that has been a source of misunderstanding for us in the US, and that is, while Muslims may envy our representative governments, they do not want to emulate our society. In my own research I have come across this sentiment many times. What Muslims wish to accomplish is a hybridization of the East and the West. They wish to incorporate those aspects of Western civilization they admire with their own set of values, so what we have to remember in the West is that liberalization for these people will not look like our evolution, but instead will be something wholly new that represents a completely different culture. Our acceptance of this fact will help us win the war of ideas, and will evince some much needed humility from the West.

I think another telling aspect of this study is that it shows that education and knowledge of Muslims have in fact not seen a significant increase in the US since Sept. 11. The fact that a large portion of the US population remains quite ignorant of the Muslim faith and its adherents means that those people who wish to preach the war of civilizations find a large and receptive audience for that message. The problem with this is that for us to win the larger war of ideas we need to help Muslim moderates any way we can. This goal will be helped if we in the West moderate our tone, and express in categorical terms that we are not at war with Islam. If we can verbalize this and then transfer that to our real actions then we will have gone a long way in taking away the enormous propaganda boon for these very radicals we are fighting.

What this book shows us is that we are not as far off as we might think. It shows that there is a common ground where a dialogue and an exchange of ideas can take place. We now have to decide if we want to attempt to fight the war of ideas, or are we going to continue trying to win this battle militarily. If we choose the physical war a quick glance at the history of the military misadventures of the West in the Muslim world may be in order. With even a cursory glance at the wars the West has fought in these areas the picture does not bode well for our future success if we attempt this route. In the end the strongest weapon in the West’s arsenal is our ideals, and it is this battlefield in which our greatest advantage lies. This is not simply a peacenik’s naïve suggestion that we need to arm our military with flowers and the world will love us. There are a lot of bad people out there who we will never convert, and these people will have to be dealt with either on the criminal level or the military level. There are people who want to kill us and will not stop until they do, but we cannot defeat these few people by alienating more than a billion people who do not hate us. We have to win both wars, and if we exclude the war of ideas in our battle plan we are destined to lose both wars.



About 2012 Convergence

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