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By Andrea Useem
Religion News Service

With Islam so much in the news today, experts and pundits are frequently called upon to explain the views of Muslims worldwide.
But according to Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Muslims should be able to speak for themselves.
In the new book, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” Mogahed and her co-author, Georgetown University professor John Esposito, offer insights into Muslim public opinion, based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews conducted by Gallup with Muslims in 35 countries.
Mogahed talked about how Muslims overseas view America, and why most terrorist sympathizers are less religious than one might think. This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Who does speak for Islam?
A: A billion Muslims do. Since 9/11, that population has essentially been silenced by vocal extremists who have monopolized the discourse.
They are silenced oftentimes by their local governments, by media pundits who claim to speak on behalf of Muslims. The last group we seem to hear from are the very people we’re talking so much about.
Q: If you were to put a headline on the book, what would it be?
A: The conflict between the United States and global Muslims is far from inevitable. It’s more about policy than principles, but if we continue to ignore what people are really saying, extremists will continue to gain ground.
Q: So another way to say that would be, “It’s about U.S. foreign policy, not Muslim theology?”
A: Yes, absolutely. For those who sympathize with extremism, it’s not about piety but perception of policy. They are not more religious.
They are, however, much more intense in their critique of U.S. policy.
Q: In the book, you describe 7 percent of the world Muslim population as “politically radicalized.” What do we know about that group?
A: They are people who have expressed both anti-American sentiment and sympathy for the attacks of 9/11. What divided them from the mainstream was not their piety but their politics. They were not more likely to attend religious services; they were not more likely to say religion is an important part of their lives.
What did separate them from the mainstream was their heightened sense of being threatened and controlled by the United States. When asked, “What is your greatest fear?” that 7 percent generally said U.S. occupation and control.
Q: To many Americans, though, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is at the root of the terrorism problem sounds like blaming the victim. How would you respond to that?
A: As a scientist, I am here to tell you what we see in the data — I’m not advocating for one point of view or another.
Those (Muslims) who condemned 9/11 (explained their response) by talking about things like the loss of human life and that innocents were killed. Those who said it was justified, however, did not cite religious justification. They talked about their perception that the U.S. was an imperialist power.
Q: If terrorist sympathizers mostly care about politics, then how do you explain the religious language coming from people like Osama bin Laden?
A: In countries with a majority-Muslim population, religion is an important part of people’s lives. Religion is the dominant social currency of Muslim societies around the world, and therefore any movement that wants to gain legitimacy will speak in terms of religion.
Q: So are terrorists using religious language inauthentically?
A: In a bin Laden speech, if you take out the introduction where he blesses the Prophet, and the end where he says, “As-salaam aleikum,” you’ve got Che (Guevara); you’ve got any revolutionary. If you analyze bin Laden’s rhetoric for Quranic verses, they’re evident mostly in their relative absence.
Q: I can imagine one headline coming out of this study reading, “Seven percent of 1 billion Muslims hate us and want to kill us.” What’s your feeling on that?
A: These 7 percent are not hardened terrorists — they are what we call the cheering section. They’re people who sympathize with terrorist action, which is very different than being willing to carry it out themselves. But they do represent a potential pool of recruits, so we can’t ignore them. But that’s very different than saying 100 million people hate us and are getting ready to kill us.
Q: What are the top issues bothering mainstream Muslims worldwide — that is, the issues that the terrorists have successfully co-opted?
A: There are essentially three filters through which everything the U.S. does or says is viewed by Muslims worldwide. The first is the perception of cultural disrespect. The second is the perception of political and economic domination. The third is that of acute conflicts–Palestine, of course, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: Is there any hope for penetrating these filters?
A: It will take a lot to break through because it’s fundamentally about trust, or the lack of trust. Just like in any relationship, once trust is lost it takes not one act, but consistent actions to build it back up.
Muslims around the world express admiration for much of what the United States stands for, but ironically it’s that very admiration that in some ways fuels resentment: “You really must hate us to treat us this way, because it is so against your own values.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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