A recent Pew survey shows many Muslim people in Islamic nations see Westerners as selfish and immoral. And many Westerners view Muslims as violent and intolerant. Both cultures might be tempted to use these findings to reinforce their views of others. Instead, they should consider how others see them.
Stereotyping – of races, religions, nationalities, and so on – is dangerous. It sparks and perpetuates prejudice and violence, from the school yard to the war zone. But generalizations about cultures often contain kernels of truth. In the effort to bridge "The Great Divide" (as the Pew Research Center survey is called), both Westerners and Muslims should examine these truth seeds.
The survey of roughly 14,000 people in 13 countries released last week finds that Muslims in predominantly Islamic nations in the Middle East and Asia have a much more uniformly negative view of Westerners than vice versa.
In all of the Islamic countries surveyed, pluralities of Muslims described Westerners as greedy, arrogant, immoral, selfish, and violent. And solid majorities in Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt labeled them fanatical. The majority of Islamic respondents also had little good to say about Westerners, the exception being a bare majority of Muslim Niger- ians describing them as generous.
These salvos smart, and the tendency might be toward self-defense: C'mon, what about all that disaster giving and volunteering the West does? NATO's ending of the Balkan wars and rescuing of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo?
But self-examination is the more useful exercise. Might not American politics today be described as near- fanatical? Don't Western media reflect, and even glorify, violence? The last decade's trend to supersize everything points to self-gratifying materialism.
Westerners were not as uniformly damning in their assessments. Majorities of French, British, and Germans, for instance, saw Muslims as honest (no majority in a Muslim country saw Westerners that way). And the "violent" description of Muslims resonated in the West, but not as deeply as it did about Westerners in Muslim lands. Huge majorities of Germans and Spaniards, however, described Muslims as fanatical, and not a single Western majority described them as tolerant.
Introspection would serve Muslims better than denunciation of Westerners for their faults. The focus has to be on a certain tolerance: healing ancient antipathy toward Jews and schisms among Muslims, as well as including women fully in human rights. The violent response to the Muhammad cartoons was way out of proportion to the disrespect the illustrations showed.
Most hopeful in the survey was the comparatively moderate views of many Muslims in Europe – indicating the potential for greater understanding by closer proximity and interaction. This argues for sustained cross-cultural dialogue and exchange between both cultures, and especially among religious leaders.
Admitting one's own faults and starting to correct them makes it easier to move forward. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, co-chair of the survey, put it last week, "It has to come from inside."