June 22, 2006

The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other

Europe's Muslims More Moderate

Introduction and Summary

After a year marked by riots over cartoon portrayals of Muhammad, a major terrorist attack in London, and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Muslims and Westerners are convinced that relations between them are generally bad these days. Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical, violent, and as lacking tolerance. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy – as well as violent and fanatical.

A rare point of agreement between Westerners and Muslims is that both believe that Muslim nations should be more economically prosperous than they are today. But they gauge the problem quite differently. Muslim publics have an aggrieved view of the West – they are much more likely than Americans or Western Europeans to blame Western policies for their own lack of prosperity. For their part, Western publics instead point to government corruption, lack of education and Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest obstacles to Muslim prosperity.

Nothing highlights the divide between Muslims and the West more clearly than their responses to the uproar this past winter over cartoon depictions of Muhammad. Most people in Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey blame the controversy on Western nations’ disrespect for the Islamic religion. In contrast, majorities of Americans and Western Europeans who have heard of the controversy say Muslims’ intolerance to different points of view is more to blame.

The chasm between Muslims and the West is also seen in judgments about how the other civilization treats women. Western publics, by lopsided margins, do not think of Muslims as “respectful of women.” But half or more in four of the five Muslim publics surveyed say the same thing about people in the West.

Yet despite the deep attitudinal divide between Western and Muslim publics, the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey also finds that the views of each toward the other are far from uniformly negative. For example, even in the wake of the tumultuous events of the past year, solid majorities in France, Great Britain and the U.S. retain overall favorable opinions of Muslims. However, positive opinions of Muslims have declined sharply in Spain over the past year (from 46% to 29%), and more modestly in Great Britain (from 72% to 63%).

For the most part, Muslim publics feel more embittered toward the West and its people than vice versa. Muslim opinions about the West and its people have worsened over the past year and by overwhelming margins, Muslims blame Westerners for the strained relationship between the two sides. But there are some positive indicators as well, including the fact that in most Muslim countries surveyed there has been a decline in support for terrorism.

The survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project was conducted in 13 countries, including the United States, from March 31-May 14, 2006. It includes special oversamples of Muslim minorities living in Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain. In many ways, the views of Europe’s Muslims represent a middle ground between the way Western publics and Muslims in the Middle East and Asia view each other.

While Europe’s Muslim minorities are about as likely as Muslims elsewhere to see relations between Westerners and Muslims as generally bad, they more often associate positive attributes to Westerners – including tolerance, generosity, and respect for women. And in a number of respects Muslims in Europe are less inclined to see a clash of civilizations than are some of the general publics surveyed in Europe. Notably, they are less likely than non-Muslims in Europe to believe that there is a conflict between modernity and being a devout Muslim.

Solid majorities of the general publics in Germany and Spain say that there is a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. But most Muslims in both of those countries disagree. And in France, the scene of recent riots in heavily Muslim areas, large percentages of both the general public and the Muslim minority population feel there is no conflict in being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

The survey shows both hopeful and troubling signs with respect to Muslim support for terrorism and the viability of democracy in Muslim countries. In Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia, there have been substantial declines in the percentages saying suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam against its enemies. The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, likely in response to the devastating terrorist attack in Amman last year; 29% of Jordanians view suicide attacks as often or sometimes justified, down from 57% in May 2005.

Confidence in Osama bin Laden also has fallen in most Muslim countries in recent years. This is especially the case in Jordan, where just 24% express at least some confidence in bin Laden now, compared with 60% a year ago. A sizable number of Pakistanis (38%) continue to say they have at least some confidence in the al Qaeda leader to do the right thing regarding world affairs, but significantly fewer do so now than in May 2005 (51%). However, Nigeria’s Muslims represent a conspicuous exception to this trend; 61% of Nigeria’s Muslims say they have at least some confidence in bin Laden, up from 44% in 2003.

The belief that terrorism is justifiable in the defense of Islam, while less extensive than in previous surveys, still has a sizable number of adherents. Among Nigeria’s Muslim population, for instance, nearly half (46%) feel that suicide bombings can be justified often or sometimes in the defense of Islam. Even among Europe’s Muslim minorities, roughly one-in-seven in France, Spain, and Great Britain feel that suicide bombings against civilian targets can at least sometimes be justified to defend Islam against its enemies.

Anti-Jewish sentiment remains overwhelming in predominantly Muslim countries. There also is considerable support for the Hamas Party, which recently was victorious in the Palestinian elections. Majorities in most Muslim countries say that the Hamas Party’s victory will be helpful to a fair settlement between Israel and the Palestinians – a view that is roundly rejected by Western publics (see “America’s Image Slips, But Allies Share U.S. Concerns over Iran, Hamas,” June 13, 2006).

In one of the survey’s most striking findings, majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan say that they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The percentage of Turks expressing disbelief that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks has increased from 43% in a 2002 Gallup survey to 59% currently. And this attitude is not limited to Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries – 56% of British Muslims say they do not believe Arabs carried out the terror attacks against the U.S., compared with just 17% who do.

But Muslim opinion on most issues is not monolithic, and there are some apparent anomalies in Muslims’ views of the West and its people. While large percentages in nearly every Muslim country attribute several negative traits to Westerners – including violence, immorality and selfishness – solid majorities in Indonesia, Jordan and Nigeria express favorable opinions of Christians.

Moreover, there is enduring belief in democracy among Muslim publics, which contrasts sharply with the skepticism many Westerners express about whether democracy can take root in the Muslim world. Pluralities or majorities in every Muslim country surveyed say that democracy is not just for the West and can work in their countries. But Western publics are divided – majorities in Germany and Spain say democracy is a Western way of doing things that would not work in most Muslim countries. Most of the French and British, and about half of Americans, say democracy can work in Muslim countries.

Overall, the Germans and Spanish express much more negative views of both Muslims and Arabs than do the French, British or Americans. Just 36% in Germany, and 29% in Spain, express favorable opinions of Muslims; comparable numbers in the two countries have positive impressions of Arabs (39% and 33%, respectively). In France, Great Britain and the U.S., solid majorities say they have favorable opinions of Muslims, and about the same numbers have positive views of Arabs.

These differences are reflected as well in opinions about negative traits associated with Muslims. Roughly eight-in-ten Spanish (83%) and Germans (78%) say they associate Muslims with being fanatical. But that view is less prevalent in France (50%), Great Britain (48%) and the U.S. (43%).

In many ways, the views of Europe’s Muslims are distinct from those of both Western publics and Muslims in the Middle East and Asia. Most European Muslims express favorable opinions of Christians, and while their views of Jews are less positive than those of Western publics, they are far more positive than those of Muslim publics. And in France, a large majority of Muslims (71%) say they have favorable opinions of Jews.

Moreover, while publics in largely Muslim countries generally view Westerners as violent and immoral, this view is not nearly as prevalent among Muslims in France, Spain and Germany. British Muslims however, are the most critical of the four minority publics studied – and they come closer to views of Muslims around the world in their opinions of Westerners.

Other Major Findings

Roadmap to the Report

The first section of the report analyzes how people in predominantly Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries view each other. This section examines the positive and negative characteristics Muslims associate with Westerners – including Muslim minorities in four Western European countries – and the traits that non-Muslims associate with Muslims. Section II focuses on opinions about the state of relations between the West and Muslims. It also explores reasons people give for Muslim nations’ lack of prosperity, attitudes to the recent controversy over cartoon depictions of Muhammad, and Muslim opinions on whether Arabs carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Section III deals with the opinions of Muslim publics as to whether they see a struggle in their countries between modernizers and Islamic fundamentalists, the concerns that Muslims and non-Muslims alike share over the rise of Islamic extremism, and Muslim views on terrorism and Osama bin Laden.

The report includes excerpts from interviews conducted by the International Herald Tribune in selected countries to illustrate some of the themes covered by the survey. These interviews were conducted separately from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The bulk of the interviews are with Muslims.

A description of the Pew Global Attitudes Project immediately follows. A summary of the methodology can be found at the end of this report, along with economic and demographic data on the countries surveyed, and complete topline results.

About the Pew Global Attitudes Project

The Pew Global Attitudes Project is a series of worldwide public opinion surveys encompassing a broad array of subjects ranging from people’s assessments of their own lives to their views about the current state of the world and important issues of the day. The Pew Global Attitudes Project is co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, currently principal, the Albright Group LLC, and by former Senator John C. Danforth, currently partner, Bryan Cave LLP. The project is directed by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” in Washington, DC, that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Global Attitudes Project is principally funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The surveys of European Muslims were conducted in partnership with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, another project of the Pew Research Center, which works to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

Since its inception in 2001, the Pew Global Attitudes Project has released 14 major reports, as well as numerous commentaries and other releases, on topics including attitudes towards the U.S. and American foreign policy, globalization, terrorism, and democratization.

Findings from the project are also analyzed in America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, a recent book by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, a Pew Global Attitudes Project team member and international economics columnist at the >National Journal.

Pew Global Attitudes Project team members also include Mary McIntosh, president of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, and Wendy Sherman, principal at The Albright Group LLC. Contributors to the report and to the Pew Global Attitudes Project include Richard Wike, Carroll Doherty, Paul Taylor, Michael Dimock, Elizabeth Mueller Gross, Jodie T. Allen, and others of the Pew Research Center. The International Herald Tribune is the project’s international newspaper partner. For this survey, the Pew Global Attitudes Project team consulted with survey and policy experts, regional and academic experts, and policymakers. Their expertise provided tremendous guidance in shaping the survey.

Following each release, the project also produces a series of in-depth analyses on specific topics covered in the survey, which will be found at pewglobal.org. The data are also made available on our website within two years of publication.

Cite this publication: “The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 22, 2006) http://www.pewglobal.org/2006/06/22/the-great-divide-how-westerners-and-muslims-view-each-other/, accessed on July 23, 2014.