Muslims tell West: 'respect Islam'

Gallup survey also finds the Mena region has a huge influence on Muslims globally and calls on western governments to focus on the Middle East.

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A large majority of Muslims say the best way for the West to improve relations with them is to "respect Islam," according to a new Gallup poll.

When asked what could improve relations, Muslims' most common reply was respect their religion. For 72 per cent, that meant not desecrating the Quran or Islam's religious symbols. More than half (52 per cent) felt the West could also show respect by treating Muslims fairly in policies that affect them.

The new Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre report calls on western governments to focus on the Middle East to improve relations with Muslims worldwide.

Gallup surveyed 123,000 people in 55 countries, including the UAE, between 2006 and 2010. The report is part of a series that will expand on the findings of Who Speaks for Islam?, a 2008 book exploring the relationship between Muslim societies and the West.

The report found that although the Middle East and North Africa accounts for only 15 to 20 per cent of all Muslims, the region has a huge influence on Muslims globally.

Between 2008 and 2009, the Mena region had the largest increase in positive sentiment towards the West.

Despite having the lowest regard for the US leadership at the end of the former US president George W Bush's administration, with just 12 per cent approving, that figure rose to 32 per cent after Barack Obama's election.

In Asia, approval dropped from 33 per cent to 30 per cent in the same period, while in Africa it rose from 72 per cent to 74 per cent.

The change could be a response to Mr Obama's new approach to US-Muslim relations, according to Dalia Mogahed, the centre's director.

In June 2009, Mr Obama addresssed Muslims worldwide in Cairo. The speech, paired with programmes to promote entrepreneurship and education, and to improve student exchanges, showed how the West can effectively engage with Muslims, she added.

The report found that 61 per cent of Muslims in the Mena region described relations between Muslims and the West as important, the highest in the world. That, it suggests, shows greater responsiveness to global leaders' change in tone.

"Because they are paying so much attention and have an interest in improving the relationship," Ms Mogahed said. "They are also going to be the most sensitive to being let down."

The polling in 2010 reflected that sense of being let down, with Mr Obama's approval rating falling in some Middle Eastern countries. Ms Mogahed attributed that to continued instability in Afghanistan, troops in Iraq and the foundering peace process between Israel and Palestine.

The results also point to an opportunity for the West.

"Public opinion in this region is changeable," said Ms Mogahed. "It's not static, it's not hardened and impenetrable to engagement."

The report also highlighted the importance of respect. It found that while almost two thirds (63 per cent) of Muslims worldwide believe their communities respect the West, barely a quarter (26 per cent) think the West respects them.

Even among non-Muslims, a sizeable minority (42 per cent) do not believe the West respects predominantly Muslim societies.

Ms Mogahed said that suggested it would be in America's interest to make its policies "more equitable to the rest of the world".

The notion of respect is evident in the changing discourse amongst the elite. According to Ms Mogahed, the issue is now less frequently described in terms of "a war against Islam".

"The conversation has shifted to one of political interests, one of conflicts of priorities," she said. "That makes the tensions more likely to be seen as resolvable through diplomacy."

In the Mena region, sources of tension included the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, foreign troops in Iraq and a disbelief that the US would not let people in the region fashion their own political future without interference.

Those who believe the tensions stems directly from religion are more likely to believe conflict cannot be avoided. In Mena, about half (51 per cent) of those citing religion as the cause also felt conflict was imminent. In the US and Canada, the rate was 41 per cent.

Another surprising finding, according to Ms Mogahed, was that in Muslim societies, the religiously observant were more likely to be optimistic about and ready for improved relations.

Among Muslims, 72 per cent of those who said they were ready for more engagement attended more than one religious service each week, 12 percentage points more than among those who were not ready.

In the West, fears remain. The "war on terror" that dominated North American conversations about Muslims after 9/11 still affects perceptions, said Ms Mogahed. About 45 per cent of US and Canadians surveyed, the highest rate worldwide, thought violent conflict was inevitable.