"Where are the moderate voices?"
This question, more than any other, is posed to me by audiences around the world when I speak to them about Muslim-West relations.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the public discourse on global relations has often been monopolised by a vocal fringe, leaving many to wonder if any other voices exist. This group is made up of people from all faiths, but while they differ from each other in many ways, they also share a great deal in common. These extreme voices, who divide the world into "us" and "them", tell us that conflict between the two is unavoidable. They often call on religion to legitimise their points of view, though they are seldom trained in the scholarly texts. They claim to speak for their entire community, though most people abhor what the extremists stand for. Unfortunately, these unrepresentative pundits also have disproportionate access to the airwaves.
The time has come to give ordinary people a voice.
Through the tool of scientific survey research, the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center aims to give the mainstream majority a chance to be heard. In this way, communities can speak for themselves rather than allow vocal extremists to speak for them.
Gallup does this by using the latest and most rigorous methodology in the field of opinion research. Gallup scientists conduct research in more than 100 countries and, in each nation, speak to a representative group of citizens - young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, men and women. In the developing world, all these interviews are done in the person's home, face to face. This is the gold standard in the industry because although it is very costly, conducting the survey in such a way assures that researchers do not exclude people because they do not have access to the internet or a telephone. Private, in-home visits also allow respondents to feel the most comfortable, where they can express their opinion openly without worrying about their peers as they might in a public setting.
Researchers conduct all interviews in the local languages and respect local customs. For example, in societies where it is the norm, our researchers match female interviewers with female respondents. Although the research is independent, Gallup only conducts its work with government approval in the countries where this is required.
Through this type of research, Gallup learnt many things about Muslims around the world that fly in the face of conventional wisdom in the West, helping North Americans and Europeans better understand their Muslim neighbours. For example, we discovered that Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable. Those that sympathise with violence against civilians are motivated more by politics than religious extremism, while the majority who reject terrorism refer to Islam to explain their objection to violence.
The data also showed areas of common ground between East and West. 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 posed this question. Most people in both non-Muslim and Muslim societies say they want better relations between the two but do not think the other side reciprocates their concern.
The research also helped people better understand Muslim women, a group that is often discussed in the West, but seldom heard. The data showed that most Muslim women admire much about the West, but did not wish to adopt western norms in totality. They saw their progress as a path they would forge through their own cultural and religious values.
These results were presented in the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, which I co-wrote with Professor John L Esposito of Georgetown University in Washington in 2008. It was the product of six years of Gallup research and tens of thousands of interviews representing a billion Muslims from more than 35 nations. This survey represented nearly 90 per cent of the global Muslim community, making it the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind.
Gallup researchers presented these results to some of the most influential people around the world, from government officials to religious leaders. These included the US president Barack Obama, the former British prime minister Tony Blair, the former US secretary of state Madeline Albright, the former British foreign minister David Miliband and many others. Our analysts discussed this work before the US Congress, at the White House, the British parliament, the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations summit, the World Economic Forum, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, the Dubai School of Government and many other prominent venues.
The inaugural report of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, Measuring Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the New Beginning, made public tomorrow, builds on some of the seminal research presented in Who Speaks for Islam? This ground-breaking report, based on more than 123,000 surveys conducted in 55 countries and areas between 2006 and 2010, explores areas of both respect and tension between western and majority Muslim societies. It also examines the differences between individuals who express an interest in Muslim-West engagement and those who do not.
This type of research allows Muslims and western communities to better understand one another, and it also helps build bridges between Muslims of different backgrounds. According to Gallup research, one of the most frequent responses Muslims give to the question "What can Muslims do to help themselves?" is for them to unite and cooperate. The first step of collaboration is mutual understanding.
In addition to its global scope, the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center will initiate in-depth research on the societal priorities of its regional base. The new research hub will present insights on the most important societal challenges facing the UAE and the Gulf Co-operation Council.
This empirical approach not only marginalises extreme voices, but allows decisions-makers to make evidence-based strategic plans, scanning the horizon for future needs, while giving citizens a say on the most important issues facing them.
For all these reasons, Abu Dhabi is the ideal base for this type of a research institution, with its vibrant environment of cultural diversity, passion for cutting-edge science and focus on societal well-being. Having a regional institutional presence also allows Gallup research to reach a new audience and cultivate new partnerships with local research institutions.
Through our global research, we learn that moderate voices are everywhere. They represent people quietly living their lives with dignity and working to improve their societies. They are hoping for more engagement with other communities and eager to improve relations. They tell us every day what they stand for. The question really is how do we better listen.
Dalia Mogahed is the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center. She is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think and served on President Barack Obama's advisory council on faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships.
The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center's initial report, Measuring Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the New Beginning, will be made public tomorrow