Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Review: Who Speaks for Islam?

"I learned everything I need to know about Islam from 9-11."

Someone actually said this to me during a discussion about Islam, and sadly reflects how little Americans know about Islam. Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think is a fascinating report on the most extensive polling ever done of Muslims around the world. I encourage all Christians to read this book to understand more about Islam, to avoid the grossly unfair stereotypes reflected in the media, particularly talk radio.

Between 2001-2007 Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour long, face to face interviews with residents of 35 nations that are predominantly or substantially Muslim. Two appendices (169-184) explain methodology in detail. The book explores how incredibly diverse the Muslim world really is, and the nature of Muslims grievances with the West.

According to the authors (John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed), the most important insight from this polling is that "conflict between the Muslim and Western communities is far from inevitable.” (xi)

Here is a chapter-by-chapter look at the book.

Chapter 1: Who Are Muslims?

The first chapter explores the great diversity among Muslims. Only 1 in 5 Muslims are Arab. The largest communities in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria. There are two major schools Islam (Sunni represents 85% of Muslims, Shia 15%), and there are vast differences among Muslims in terms of how to interpret Islam.

Chapter 2: Democracy or Theocracy?

The second chapter addresses the issue of democracy, and particularly the extent to which Muslims desire Sharia (Muslims principles of faith) to direct laws. Majorities in most Muslim countries (women as well as men) want Sharia as at least a source of Law. In the same poll 46% of Americans said the Bible should be a source of legislation. And just as in the case of Americans, Muslims differ wide in terms of how the principles of Sharia should be applied in civil government.

For instance, contrary to the popular belief in America that Sharia law inherently oppresses women, majorities in most Muslims countries believe women should have:

-the same legal rights as men

-the right to vote

-the right to hold any job outside home they are qualified for

-the right to hold leadership in government

“Muslims who want to see Sharia as a source of law in constitutions therefore have very different visions of how that would manifest…some expect full implementation of classical or medieval Islamic law; others want a more restricted approach, like prohibiting alcohol, requiring the head of state to be a Muslim, or creating Sharia courts to hear cases involving Muslim family law…" (p. 53)

Further, while it is popular to claim that Muslims hate the freedom we have in America, it is actually one of the thing Muslims admire the most. And it is the reason many Muslims believe there is a double standard in US foreign policy, supporting authoritarian regimes that oppress Muslims (p. 58).

What can the West do to improve relations with the Muslim world, Muslims typically responded:

-Demonstrate more respect; more consideration toward Muslim countries.

-Do not underestimate the status of Arab/Muslim countries.

-Demonstrate more understanding of Islam, do not downgrade what it stands for.

In response to the question of what the US could do to improve life in your country, Muslims responded most frequently:

-Reduce unemployment and improve infrastructure

-Stop interfering in the internal affairs of Arab/Islamic states

-Stop imposing your beliefs

-Respect our political rights and stop controlling us

Chapter 3: What Makes a Radical?

This chapter was the saddest in many ways because it demonstrated what a sharp contrast there is between how we in America view ourselves versus how Muslims perceive America. We are not the good guys fighting for democracy in the eyes of most Muslims. “Majorities in virtually every nation with majority or sizable Muslim populations disagree that the United States is serious about the establishment of democratic systems in the region.” (p. 83)

In 10 predominantly Muslim countries here were the attributes associated with US:

-ruthless 68%

-advanced 68%

-aggressive 66%

-conceited 65%

-morally decadent 64%

If we are going to effectively understand radical Islam, we are going to have to do a better job of understanding the root causes that fuel radicalism, and these causes are American foreign policy. Whether that policy is correct is a matter for debate, of course, but we cannot dismiss radicalism as mere anger against "how good we are."

This chapter also dealt with the issue of violence. Shockingly, more Americans said that attacks intentionally aimed at civilians were completely justified than did Muslims (US 6%, Lebanon and Iran 2%, Saudi Arabia 4%). Attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are “never justified” according to 46% of Americans, 74% in Indonesia, 86% in Pakistan, 80% in Iran.

(As an aside - this is the reason many Muslims refused to believe Islamic terrorists were behind 9-11; the attacks violated sacred principles of Islam).

Chapter 4: What Do Women Want?

This chapter reiterated information from earlier in the book, and explained that many Muslims believe women in the West are far more exploited and oppressed than in Muslim culture because of the way women are used as sex objects.

Chapter 5: Clash or Coexistence?

It is common to hear pundits simply blame Islam for violence.

“But blaming Islam is a simple answer, easier and less controversial than re-examining the core political issues and grievances that resonate in much of the Muslim world: the failures of many Muslim governments and societies, some aspects of U.S. foreign policy representing intervention and dominance, Western support for authoritarian regimes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or support for Israel’s military battles with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” (p. 136-137)

“The primary cause of broad-based anger and anti-Americanism is not a clash of civilizations but the perceived effect of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world.” (p. 156)

Final Thoughts

This book provided an illuminating window into the diverse world of Islam. It is an uncomfortable book to read as an American because it is clear that our government's policies, though well-intentioned, have created a tremendous backlash all across the Muslim world. I don't know in the current state of political discourse if Americans are open to serious self-examination of these policies.

As a Christian, I found the information in this book extremely helpful in terms of thinking of ways to build bridges in order to share the gospel with these sons of Abraham.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. Obviously to help Muslims see the love of Christ our approach should be like Paul's with the Greek Pagans in Acts 17 rather than one of exchanging insults. One thing that grabbed my attention was that Muslims want the West to "stop imposing their beliefs," an understandable concern, but of course many Muslims don't mind imposing theirs in the countries where they have the control.