Guestview: Why “militant Islam” is a dangerous myth
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
By Dalia Mogahed
Right-wing pundits in the U.S. and Europe sometimes argue that it is misguided to avoid religious language when describing terrorists. They point out that members of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates call themselves “jihadists”, a derivative of the Arabic noun “jihad” meaning a struggle for God. They explain that it is therefore accurate and fair to refer to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates by the same term.
These same commentators also assert that political correctness in labelling the enemy is the last thing Western societies should be worried about. In fact, they say, focusing too much on not offending others may even weaken Americans’ and Europeans’ will to defeat those who wish them harm.
Yet Gallup research paints a very different picture; an ambitious new study suggests that casting tensions between Muslims and the West in religious terms may actually weaken the ability of America and Europe to fight religiously-branded extremists. This report, which inaugurates Gallup’s Abu Dhabi Center, is entitled “Measuring Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the “New Beginning,” and presents the results of more than 100,000 interviews with citizens in 55 countries. A key finding is that those who see the conflict as primarily due to religious differences are more likely to see a clash as inevitable.
To better understand this finding it is useful to examine the message of Al Qaeda affiliated violent extremists. The religious authenticity of the terrorists group, as well as the inevitability of conflict between Muslims and the West, are cornerstones of Al Qaeda’s narrative. Violent extremists who wave a religious banner do so to legitimise their movement and bolster its claims to moral superiority. Therefore, when pundits cast these violent activists as religiously motivated, they only reinforce the terrorist appeal to religion.
Moreover, if these tensions are indeed unavoidable, the extremists’ narrative continues, then dialogue is useless and force is necessary. Once a clash is the only option, the extremists claim that for their own survival people must support those fighting on their behalf Western thought-leaders would therefore do well to refute, not reinforce, the idea of inevitable religious war.
Yet commentators may be promoting precisely these arguments when they characterise terrorists as religious actors, or tensions as primarily the result of differences between Islam’s teachings and Western values. The Gallup analysts found that those who believe tensions between Muslim and Western communities arise more out of religious differences than political interests were more likely to say the two societies are doomed to clash. This trend holds up in both majority Muslim and Western populations. The researchers also discovered that in both predominantly Muslim and Western societies, those who most oppose positive interaction with the other are most likely to see the tensions as religious rather than political. Put simply, the more people see conflict as arising from religion, the more they see it as inevitable. The more they see it inevitable, the less open to dialogue they may become.
But it is important to note that research also shows that people who believe conflict is due to religion are not necessarily more religious themselves. Quite the opposite; religious practice among Muslims is associated with a greater readiness for engagement. These results confirm earlier Gallup research, showing that Muslims who most opposed the 9/11 attacks gave moral or religious reasons to support this opinion. The minority who said they thought the terrorist attacks were “morally justified” mostly cited political reciprocity to explain their views.
Religion remains one of the most powerful forces in majority Muslim societies, with the vast number affirming its importance in their daily lives. Like any group wishing to mobilise followers and recruit support, Al-Qaeda knows its audience and attempts to appeal to their points of reference. Framing these violent extremists as religious zealots rather than violent political activists, supports both their credibility and their key message.
European leaders who stand firm on the need to improve relations with Muslim societies may also have more of the public on their side. A large proportion of the European public agrees that conflict between Muslim and Western societies is avoidable. Europeans and Arabs are also most likely to see tensions as stemming primarily from political rather than religious differences. Because European public opinion generally rejects the notion that Western and Muslim societies are doomed to violent clash, it is likely to be more receptive to constructive engagement and to those leaders who call for it.
In addition to its strategic advantage versus extremists’ rhetoric, and its public appeal, political framing of the conflict is simply more accurate. Gallup research covering 90% of the global Muslim population clearly suggests that tensions arise more from political perceptions than religious differences. This becomes clearest of all when comparing public perceptions in different countries. Egyptians are as likely to express favourable opinions of Germany and its majority Christian population as they are of largely Muslim Pakistan. The majority of Jordanians say they have favourable opinion of Christians, while at the same time disapproving of U.S. leadership.
Muslims’ negative views stem mostly from perceptions of political injustice and Western disrespect, rather than from religious differences. These include Arab anger about conflicts involving Western powers like the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq as well as the on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many citizens in majority Muslim countries believe that the United States seeks to dominate and exploit their lands.
This latest research confirms that to create a basis for respect, communication catastrophes like the Danish cartoon crisis or the Florida pastor’s promised burning of the Koran must be avoided. But that is far from the whole picture. The Gallup analysts also discovered that perceptions of “being treated fairly in the policies that affect them” is an important dimension of respect. So to avoid unintentionally bolstering extremists’ propaganda, Western leaders would do well to steer clear of religious language when describing terrorists or tensions between Muslims and the West. They should, instead, describe conflicts with predominantly Muslim societies as is truly the case, namely that they mostly arise from political differences that can eventually be sorted out, as distinct from religious differences that are much more enduring.
Western societies should not therefore look to inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue as the primary ways to ease Muslim-West tensions, despite their inherent merit. Their political leaders would be better off to directly address the roots of tension by engaging in dialogue on issues of political fairness. Of course religious leaders still have a vital role to play as they are best positioned to steer their congregations away from religious interpretations of political conflict. Men and women of faith must emphasise their tradition’s ethical teachings and respect for differences.
The Al-Qaeda narrative which divides the world into “us” and “them” uses religious identity markers as badges of righteousness. When commentators refer to violent extremists as “strugglers for God” , they play into the terrorists’ claimed persona of being moral soldiers waging an inevitable war. It is precisely because terrorists call themselves “jihadists” that those who wish to defeat them must resist doing the same.
(The original version of this article is published in the Spring 2011 issue of Europe’s World.)