Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics and attitudes of Muslim Americans and also about what other Americans think about Muslim Americans. To expand this theme ever more, the Christian Science Monitor reports on a new study by the Gallup Organization that illustrates what Muslims around the world think about the West in general:
When asked what they most admire about the West, Muslims pointed to (1) technology, (2) a value system of hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation, and (3) fair political systems, with respect for human rights, democracy, and gender equality.
What they dislike the most about the West includes: denigration of Islam and Muslims, promiscuity, and ethical and moral corruption.
What they admire least about their own Muslim societies includes: lack of unity, economic and political corruption, and extremism.
Most Muslims agree on what the West should do first to improve relations: demonstrate more respect, show more understanding of Islam as a religion, and not denigrate what it stands for. The issues that drive radicals are also important to mainstream Muslims, but they differ in their priorities and the degree of politicization and alienation.
Moderate Muslims next hope for Western policies that support economic development. Radicals are more focused on the West discriminating less against Muslims and refraining from interference in the internal affairs of Muslim countries.
In terms of what Muslims (moderates and radicals) around the world say the West can do to improve relations with the Muslim world, the first two suggestions — support economic development and discriminate less against Muslims — sound pretty reasonable to me.
It’s the third suggestion — stop interfering with internal affairs — that is a little more thorny and problematic for many Americans from both sides of the political spectrum.
Specifically, many Americans of different political ideologies object to the harsh restrictions that exist in many Muslim countries on the rights of women. The most extreme (or at least most publicized) examples of this type of gender discrimination occurred when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and severely restricted the activities of women, using physical violence in many cases.
This is perhaps the most common and significant complaint against Muslim societies, at least among many liberals. And it is this complaint that makes it difficult for many Americans who would otherwise support greater respect toward Muslim countries to wholly embrace the idea of not trying to influence such policies that we in the West view as oppressive and even abusive.
So is there a middle ground here? In fact, the Gallup study goes on to note that most Muslims around the world support equal rights for women:
Majorities in most countries believe that women should have the same legal rights as men: They should have the right to vote, to hold any job outside the home that they qualify for, and to hold leadership positions at the cabinet and national council levels.
Majorities of men in virtually every country (including 62 percent in Saudi Arabia, 73 percent in Iran, and 81 percent in Indonesia) agree that women should be able to work at any job they qualify for. In Saudi Arabia, where women cannot vote, 58 percent of men say women should be able to vote.
In other words, the majority of Muslims support the same kind of equal rights for women that the West also supports. It is only a small vocal and militant minority of Muslims who believe that women are inherently inferior to women.
This support for women’s rights in the Muslim world is significant because it serves as an important bridge between western and Muslim societies — that is, it allows Americans like me to find common ground with Muslims around the issue of interfering with internal affairs.
In other words, there is no need to interfere with the internal affairs of a Muslim society when it comes to treating women equally because the majority of Muslim populations share the same beliefs on the topic. When gender discrimination does occur, the results of the survey show that we can count on the majority of Muslims to oppose such unequal treatment the same way we would.
Ultimately, this understanding can serve as the “social glue” that can facilitate closer and more respectful relations between the Muslim world and the West.