As the war in Iraq rages, it is not surprising that there is ill will between Muslims and Westerners. Bridging that divide requires understanding its scope and causes. A new study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project contributes to that understanding.
The survey, conducted among some 14,000 people in 13 nations between March 31 and May 14, is available at http://pewglobal.org. Key players in the Pew project discussed their findings at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters on Thursday morning.
"A real divide does exist between peoples," said Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center and Director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. "Muslims and Westerners are generally convinced that relationships are not good these days. Westerners see Muslims as fanatical, violent and not tolerant. Muslims see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy.... One of the most startling findings here, most Muslims remain unconvinced that Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks...."
Religious leaders should take a more active role in bridging the divide, argued former Missouri Senator John Danforth. Danforth, a divinity school grad and ordained Episcopal priest, served as President Bush's special envoy to Sudan, and also as US ambassador to the United Nations.
"I think that it would be a very important thing and very constructive to have not just a one-shot meeting but a persistent interreligious dialog," Danforth said. "And I think one of the subjects that would be [an] interesting start to such a dialog is the principle of noncombatant immunity ... it is central in the concept of just-war doctrine."
Danforth continued, "The leaders of Islam have been less than forthcoming in expressing strong views on matters of terrorism.... [Western religious leaders] have not been strong in any respect about how their religion relates to the world beyond themselves.... We are so focused on our own navels and on inside battles about who should be a bishop here or there which nobody really cares about.... We have not been sufficiently focused on the relationship of religion to the rest of the world.... What you see here in the survey is that religion itself is the problem. And if religion is the problem then religion should address the problem."
In terms of governmental policy, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, co-chair of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, said that the US government should be more active in explaining itself.
"We have not fully engaged, or have not engaged enough, in what I consider the battle of ideas," Albright said. "We have not explained ourselves well enough, we don't talk enough about who we are, what we really believe in and therefore are in a position of being categorized ... we have to engage better in the battle of ideas, that is the policy thing out of that... If there is going to be change ... in the Muslim world, or within the Muslim religion, it has to come from inside and ... one of the best vehicles for this might be some of the European Muslims."
Why focus on a dialog with European Muslims? Because the new Pew survey reports that, "While Europe's Muslim minorities are about as likely as Muslims elsewhere to see relations between Westerners and Muslims as generally bad, they more often associate positive attributes to Westerners - including tolerance, generosity, and respect for women. European Muslims also are less likely than non-Muslims in Europe to believe that there is a conflict between modernity and being a devout Muslim."
The war in Iraq has had a pronounced effect on anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, survey director Kohut said. "Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world prior to Iraq was mostly concentrated in the Mideast and in central Asia. After Iraq, Indonesia went from 55 or 60 percent favorable view of the United States to 15 percent and Muslims in Nigeria went to a very low number from a reasonably high number." The survey found that among Nigeria's population, 46 percent feel that suicide bombings can be justified often or sometimes in defense of Islam.
In the search for solutions to the Muslim/Western divide, Senator Danforth counseled focusing on, "What in this survey can be changed? Wherein is the possibility? And it seems to me that the possibility is to focus on that part of the survey which could be possibly improved, and that is the perception that we are violent, we are greedy, and all of the negatives that are said about Westerners.... There is a lot to be said for intercultural and interreligious dialog."