Who speaks for Islam? Good question

MuslimMosaicUSA 02A long, long, time ago -- before that Pope Benedict XVI person came to town and took over the lives of your GetReligionistas (with some help from a controversial sect in Texas) -- the Los Angeles Times ran a short educational feature entitled, "Muslim true/false -- What you think you know about them is likely wrong -- and that's dangerous." This piece was written by John L. Esposito, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, who is the executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup. Together, they wrote a book entitled "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think."

The goal of the article was to influence how media leaders think about Islam and, thus, the contents of the news that reaches American citizens. If Americans are, as a rule, ignorant when it comes to basic facts about Islam, Mogahed and Esposito wanted to help set them straight. The article made a wide range of claims, based on new Gallup data. For example:

... Gallup found that 72% of Americans disagreed with this statement: "The majority of those living in Muslim countries thought men and women should have equal rights." In fact, majorities in even some of the most conservative Muslim societies directly refute this assessment: 73% of Saudis, 89% of Iranians and 94% of Indonesians say that men and women should have equal legal rights. Majorities of Muslim men and women in dozens of countries around the world also believe that a woman should have the right to work outside the home at any job for which she is qualified (88% in Indonesia, 72% in Egypt and even 78% in Saudi Arabia), and to vote without interference from family members (87% in Indonesia, 91% in Egypt, 98% in Lebanon).

And on the ultimate hot-button issue:

What about Muslim sympathy for terrorism? Many charge that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths, but studies show that Muslims around the world are at least as likely as Americans to condemn attacks on civilians. Polls show that 6% of the American public thinks attacks in which civilians are targets are "completely justified." In Saudi Arabia, this figure is 4%. In Lebanon and Iran, it's 2%.

Moreover, it's politics, not piety, that drives the small minority -- just 7% -- of Muslims to anti-Americanism at the level of condoning the attacks of 9/11. Looking across majority-Muslim countries, Gallup found no statistical difference in self-reported religiosity between those who sympathized with the attackers and those who did not. When respondents in select countries were asked in an open-ended question to explain their views of 9/11, those who condemned it cited humanitarian as well as religious reasons. For example, 20% of Kuwaitis who called the attacks "completely unjustified" explained this position by saying that terrorism was against the teachings of Islam. A respondent in Indonesia went so far as to quote a direct verse from the Koran prohibiting killing innocents. On the other hand, not a single respondent who condoned the attacks used the Koran as justification.

This is one of those cases where I really thought that there wasn't much I could say, despite having read quite a few case studies that would seem to undercut these poll numbers. I have heard Muslim scholars quote data that seriously clash with these numbers, too. Thus, I decided to ask for the opinion of one of my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues, Dr. Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute. He directs that conservative think tank's Center for Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World and is one of the editors of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.

I figured that there would be two ways to view the issues in the Los Angeles Times piece. As it turns out, Fradkin was already on top of that -- leading to a post at the weblog called Middle East Strategy at Harvard, responding, in part, to the article and, primarily, to the book it was promoting.

Here is a piece of Fradkin's response:

So who does speak for Islam? Apparently, Esposito and Mogahed do. For the book does not actually present the poll. It provides a very small and partial account of the responses to some questions, but fails to include even one table or chart of data. It does not even provide a clear list of the questions that were asked. The appendix, where one might expect to find questionnaires, charts, and tables, provides only a short narrative discussion of Gallup's sampling techniques and general mode of operation.

To a certain degree, the authors admit the bias of their presentation: "The study revealed far more than what we could possibly cover in one book, so we chose the most significant, and at times, surprising conclusions to share with you. Here are just some of those counterintuitive discoveries." But this admission is ridiculously inadequate. After all, this is a book, not an article. In the end, the authors betray their own standard that "data should lead the discourse," because there is no data. A reader without deep pockets cannot easily remedy this deficiency: the Gallup Organization charges $28,500 to access the data.

dalia mogahedAnd here is another crucial piece of the post, responding to claims about basic human rights issues. For example, do most Muslims want "democracy," as that term is defined in Western documents?

Fradkin writes:

It ... turns out that Muslims apparently want a different kind of "democracy," one which avoids moral and other kinds of risks. For example, although they would like freedom of speech, they would not like it to be unlimited, such that it might permit speech offensive to religious sensibilities. In other words, blasphemy laws should limit it.

As for other "freedoms," the authors provide no information. In particular, we do not know whether Muslims accept "freedom of religion." This is a most peculiar omission since it is essential to a clear understanding of contemporary Muslim views of democracy.

But perhaps all of this is to be understood in light of the finding that Muslims -- women as well as men -- want to ground their "democracy" partly or entirely in Sharia or Islamic law. The authors hasten to assure the readers that this does not mean that "Muslim democracy" would actually be a "theocracy," since their respondents largely reject the prospective rule of Muslim jurists.

But this leaves the matter totally confused. If Sharia is to be the partial or entire base of future "democratic" governments, who is constituted to decide what Sharia prescribes, other than the jurists to whom its interpretation has always been and is still entrusted? We are left totally in doubt as to whether the poll asked this kind of question. We are also left in doubt about a whole set of issues, including and especially whether or not "Muslim democracy" would permit religious freedom of the sort characteristic of American and other liberal democracies. Would the status of non-Muslims -- especially Christians -- be governed by traditional Sharia prescriptions for non-Muslim or dhimmi minorities, which involve various legal disabilities and inequities? Or would they be fully equal? Would non-Muslims be permitted to run for and hold public office?

Obviously, this is not a debate that will end soon and I doubt that the editors of the Los Angeles Times think that it will, either.

But everyone would agree that American journalists (and American politicos) need to know more about the complex and many-layered beliefs and practices of Islamic believers and Islamic societies. As we have heard many times: There is no one Islam. There is no one understanding of Sharia law. There is no one Islamic understanding of "religious liberty."

There are no quick answers to any of these question. The realities are complex and hard.

Read the articles on both sides of this debate. Please. And please stick to the journalism issues when hitting the "comment" button. By the way, here is a link to another Harvard piece by Fradkin on a related issue -- the media debates about the meaning of terms such as "Islamism" and "Islamist." This, too, has come up from time to time here at GetReligion.

Second photo: Co-author Dalia Mogahed, from the homepage of the Middle East Institute.

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