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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Engage, Muslim attitudes and the 'clash of civilisations'

A Gallup poll on worldwide Muslim attitudes gets a somewhat triumphalist write-up from Engage. A more considered reponse, focussing more on the methodology and statistics than on the intensive spin that's been put on them, would not go amiss.

A sample of the spin: 'Gallup found that majorities in many predominantly Muslim countries as well as the United States report experiencing enjoyment, smiling and laughing, and enjoying good-tasting food' it says here. Well, thanks for telling us, but I imagine that even Samuel P. Huntington is able to distinguish between Muslims and zombies, whilst here in the UK there can be few of us indeed who have not enjoyed good-tasting food cooked by Muslims.

Here are just a few points Engage might want to consider:-

1. Is it not absurdly simplistic to reduce the diversity of Muslim attitudes to a binary typology of 'moderate' versus 'radical', determined by responses to just two questions about attitudes to the US?

2. 'Only' 7% are 'radical', the poll finds. Well, OK, but 7% of 1.3 billions is 91 millions - this won't give al-Qaeda too any nightmares about running out of recruits.

3. The bar for 'radicalism' is set pretty high. Not only must the respondent have an 'unfavourable' or 'very unfavourable' opinion of the US, he/she must admit to feeling that the 9/11 attacks were 'completely justified'. Anyone merely thinking they were more justified than not gets to be a moderate.

And on this basis Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who condemns 9/11 but openly condones suicide bombings in Israel, is a moderate - not a view that has found much favour with Engage up to now. Nor is he in any way an isolated figure: there can be no doubt that if the poll had canvassed opinions on terrorist attacks against Israel it would have presented a very different picture of the fault line between 'moderate' and 'radical'.

4. From the Yahoo report which Engage quotes:-

'"Ironically, [radicals] believe in democracy even more than many of the mainstream moderates do, but they're more cynical about whether they'll ever get it," said Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington.'

That 'even more' is an interesting way of putting it. The poll asked whether 'moving toward greater democracy will help Arab/Muslim societies’ progress.' Whilst 'radicals' were split 50/50 on this one, just 35% of 'moderates' answered affirmatively. We're not exactly talking about moderation in any Lib-Demish sense, are we?

I do take Engage's point that it's essential not to 'paint the Devil on the wall', to use one of my favourite German phrases, and the poll did produce some genuinely encouraging findings. But there is another danger, too: that one day liberals will discover that the 'clash of civilisations' was lost while they were busy looking the other way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I would note that I tried to posts some criticism of the article but, for whatever reason, Engage would not post it. I save my second attempt, which reads as follows:

The polling data say less than is asserted by the leading portions of the article. This becomes clear because the article later states: "Moderate Muslims interviewed for the poll condemned the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington because innocent lives were lost and civilians killed." In other words, the innocent loss of life, including of civilians, was an issue, not necessarily the politics of the radicals.

I suggest that the fact that roughly ten percent of a population group - in this case, that means roughly 90 to 100 million people - supports violence against innocent civilians means that there is, by necessity, a much larger group that supports the aims of those committing the violence without necessarily supporting the means. And note: polling data, including in the UK, support this point.

The issue, in any event, appears to be one of means, not ends. So, we discover that there are large number of Muslims who do not like the idea of blowing people up, which is quite a different thing from saying that there is a large contingent of moderates, as we understand the term.