June 22, 2006

The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other

II. The Rift Between Muslims and the West: Causes and Consequences

Muslims and Westerners agree that relations between them are generally bad, but disagree about who is to blame. Strong majorities in the Muslim world blame the West, while Western publics are more divided.

Roughly eight-in-ten Turks (79%) who say relations between Muslims and people in the West are bad say that Westerners are mostly to blame for this. Smaller but still sizable majorities in Indonesia (64%), Jordan (61%), Pakistan (60%) and Egypt (56%) also say Westerners are largely to blame for the poor state of relations (based on those who say relations are generally bad).

On this question, as on many others, the division in Nigeria between its Christian and Muslim population is striking. Majorities of both Muslims (77%) and Christians (52%) agree that relations between Muslims and the West are poor. But 69% of Christian Nigerians blame Muslims, while an even greater percentage of Muslim Nigerians (83%) blame Westerners.

In Jordan and Egypt, majorities blame the West generally for bad relations, but about a quarter of the respondents offer up a more specific source of tension. Fully 28% of Jordanians and 22% of Egyptians volunteer that “Jews” are mostly to blame for bad relations, although Jews were not mentioned in the question.

Western publics have mixed views of which side is to blame for the poor relationship between Muslims and people in the West. A third of Americans say Muslims are mostly to blame for this, but 26% point to Western people, while 22% volunteer that both sides are to blame. British opinion divides along similar lines: a third of the British who see relations as poor blame both sides; 27% blame Westerners; and 25% think that people in Western countries are mostly to blame.

Among Western publics, the French and Germans are most likely to blame Muslims for the bad relationship. But in both countries, fewer than half of those who see relations between the West and Muslims as bad mostly blame Muslims for this (47% in France, 39% in Germany).

Europe’s Muslim minorities generally feel Westerners are responsible for the rift between Muslims and the West, but this view is less widespread than in predominantly Muslim countries. Spain’s Muslims stand out because an unusually high percentage (49%) says that relations between the West and Muslims are good; just 23% of Spanish Muslim say that relations are bad.

Why Aren’t Muslim Nations More Prosperous?

Muslims and Westerners agree that Muslim nations should be doing better economically. This view is expressed by strong majorities throughout the West and overwhelming percentages of Muslims. Russia is the only country surveyed where fewer than half (45%) say that Muslim countries should be more economically prosperous, although a relatively small majority in the U.S. (56%) also expresses this view.

Consensus breaks down, however, over what is most responsible for Muslim nations’ lack of prosperity. There are differences among Muslim and non-Muslim publics alike, although Muslims are much more likely to blame U.S. and Western policies than are non-Muslim publics.

Two-thirds of Jordanians (66%) and 59% of Egyptians who say Muslim nations should be more economically prosperous say Western policies are primarily responsible, or next most responsible, for the lack of prosperity. Nearly half of those in Turkey (48%) and Indonesia (47%) who say Muslim nations should be more prosperous also say Western policies are to blame; however, somewhat more Turks (55%) see lack of education in the Muslim world as the main obstacle to Muslim prosperity, while Indonesians most often mention government corruption in Muslim nations as being mainly responsible for Muslims’ lack of prosperity (52%). But only about a quarter of Pakistanis (24%) blame U.S. and other Western policies, while 60% blame Muslims’ lack of education.

Notably, solid majorities of Muslims in Spain, Great Britain and France who say Muslim nations should be more economically prosperous believe government corruption in Muslim nations is largely responsible for the lack of prosperity. German Muslims generally attribute the economic weakness of Muslim nations to a lack of education among Muslims.

Western publics differ over what is mostly responsible for Muslim nations’ lack of prosperity. Germans most often blame Islamic fundamentalism (53%), while a plurality of French (48%) see the lack of democracy in the Muslim world as mainly responsible. Americans generally believe government corruption is to blame for Muslim nations’ failure to prosper (58%), although 51% point to a lack of education in the Muslim world. A narrow majority in Great Britain (51%) also views Muslim government corruption is largely responsible for Muslim nations’ poor economic fortunes.

Seeing the World Differently: The Cartoon Controversy

With just a few exceptions, there is broad public awareness of the dispute over publication of cartoons with the image of the prophet Muhammad. In most populations surveyed, more than 80% had heard of the controversy, and this figure rises to more than 90% in Jordan, Egypt, and among Muslims in Great Britain, Germany and France. But in the U.S., just 65% had heard of the dispute, and in China only 23% were aware of the issue.

By wide margins, Westerners who had heard of the controversy believe that Muslim intolerance is principally to blame for the controversy, while Muslims, by even more lopsided majorities, see Western disrespect for the Islamic religion as the root of the problem. The clashing points of view are seen clearly in Nigeria, where 81% of Muslims blame the controversy on Western disrespect and 63% of Christians say Muslim intolerance is to blame.

On this issue, unlike many others, Europe’s Muslim minorities share the perspective of their fellow Muslims in Muslim nations. Among those who are aware of the dispute, more than seven-in-ten Muslims in Spain (80%), France (79%), Great Britain (73%) and Germany (71%) say Western disrespect for Islam spurred the conflict.

While Westerners are firm in their view that Muslims are to blame for the controversy, they are not without sympathy for Muslims who were offended by the cartoons. About half the respondents in Great Britain and roughly four-in-ten in the United States, Germany and France voice such sympathy. But just 17% of the Spanish say they are sympathetic, while 79% say they are not.

As might be expected, large majorities of Muslims – in predominantly Muslim countries as well as Europe – say they sympathize with the Muslims who were offended by the cartoons. Feelings of sympathy with those offended by the cartoons are especially widespread in Jordan (99%) and Egypt (98%).

Seeing the World Differently: 9/11

Perhaps the most dramatic measure of the gulf that separates Muslims from the Western world comes in their response to this question: Do you believe that groups of Arabs carried out the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001?

By wide margins, Muslims living in Muslim countries say they do not believe this to be the case. The least skeptical Muslim nation is Jordan; even there, a majority (53%) says they do not believe Arabs carried out the attacks. The most skeptical nation is Indonesia, where 65% say they do not believe it and just 16% say they do, with the remaining 20% expressing no opinion.

In Turkey, nearly as many (59%) say they do not believe that groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, while 16% say they did. In 2002, a much bigger share of the Turkish public – 46% – said they believed that Arabs were responsible for Sept. 11, according to a Gallup survey. Roughly four-in-ten Pakistanis (41%) say they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks, compared with 5% who think they did; 44% of Pakistanis declined to respond.

The Muslim minorities of France, Germany and Spain are fairly evenly divided over whether Arabs did, or did not, carry out the Sept.11 attacks, while opinion among British Muslims is similar to views in predominantly Muslim countries. By 56%-17%, British Muslims do not believe Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.