UAE | Heritage and Culture

Who speaks for Islam: Part II

In this five-part series, carried every Friday during Ramadan, Gulf News excerpts the fascinating conclusions of the largest ever opinion survey of the world's Muslims, carried out by Gallup. Who speaks for Islam? by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed was published by Gallup Press.

  • By John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed
  • Published: 00:30 September 12, 2008
  • Gulf News

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In this five-part series, Gulf News excerpts the fascinating conclusions of the largest ever opinion survey of the world's Muslims, carried out by Gallup. Who speaks for Islam? by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed was published by Gallup Press.

Western confusion over Sharia

The majority of Muslims believe women should have the right to vote and hold jobs and leadership positions.

Sharia has been equated with stoning of adulterers, chopping off limbs for theft, imprisonment or death in blasphemy and apostasy cases, and limits on the rights of women and minorities. The range of differing perceptions about Sharia surfaced in Iraq when Shia leaders, such as Iraq's senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, called for an Islamic democracy, including Sharia as a basis of law in Iraq's new constitution. An Iraqi Christian member of the Iraqi constitution's drafting committee, Yonadam Kanna, said in summer 2005 that the consequences of making Sharia one of the main sources of law would be dire. "For women it would be a disaster." Nevertheless, more than 1,000 Iraqi women rallied in support of Sharia in the southern city of Basra in August 2005 in response to another rally opposing Sharia in Baghdad a week earlier.

Taking a stance on the debate regarding the role of Sharia in Iraq's new constitution, then-administrator L. Paul Bremer in 2004 said of the interim constitution, "Our position is clear. It can't be law until I sign it." Donald Rumsfeld, then-Secretary of Defence, warned in 2003 that the United States would not allow Iraq to become a theocracy like Iran, confusing the idea of including Sharia in Iraq's new constitution with creating a theocracy, or clerical rule.

Although in many quarters, Sharia has become the buzz-word for religious rule, responses to the Gallup Poll indicate that wanting Sharia does not automatically translate into wanting theocracy. Significant majorities in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a country's constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women dress in public or what is televised or published in newspapers. Others who opt for a direct role tend to stipulate that religious leaders should only serve in an advisory capacity to government officials.

In the West, Sharia often evokes an image of a restrictive society where women are oppressed and denied basic human rights. Indeed, women have suffered under government-imposed Sharia regulations in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Sudan, the Taliban's Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. However, those who want Sharia often charge that these regulations are un-Islamic interpretations.

Gallup Poll data show us that most respondents want women to have autonomy and equal rights. Majorities of respondents in most countries surveyed believe that women should have:

- the same legal rights as men (85 per cent in Iran; 90 per cent range in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Lebanon; 77 per cent in Pakistan; and 61 per cent in Saudi Arabia). Surprisingly, Egypt (57 per cent) and Jordan (57 per cent), which are generally seen as more liberal, lag behind Iran, Indonesia, and other countries.

- rights to vote: 80 per cent in Indonesia, 89 per cent in Iran, 67 per cent in Pakistan, 90 per cent in Bangladesh, 93 per cent in Turkey, 56 per ceaent in Saudi Arabia, and 76 per cent in Jordan say women should be able to vote without any influence or interference from family members.

- the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home. Malaysia, Mauritania, and Lebanon have the highest percentage (90 per cent); Egypt (85 per cent), Turkey (86 per cent), and Morocco (82 per cent) score in the 80 per cent range, followed by Iran (79 per cent), Bangladesh (75 per cent), Saudi Arabia (69 cent), Pakistan (62 per cent), and Jordan (61 per cent).

- the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels. While majorities among those surveyed support this statement, those in Saudi Arabia (40 per cent) and Egypt (50 per cent) are exceptions.

While Sharia is widely depicted as a rigid and oppressive legal system, Muslim women tend to have a more nuanced view of Sharia, viewing it as compatible with their aspirations for empowerment. For example, Jenan Al Ubaedy, one of 90 women who sat on Iraq's National Assembly in early 2005, told the Christian Science Monitor that she supported the implementation of Sharia. However, she said that as an assembly member, she would fight for women's right for equal pay, paid maternity leave, and reduced hours for pregnant women. She said she would also encourage women to wear hijab and focus on strengthening their families. To Ubaedy, female empowerment is consistent with Islamic values.

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Most Muslims want a legal mixture

Both sexes alike across the Muslim world support some Sharia input.

Cutting across diverse Muslim countries, social classes, and gender differences, answers to our questions reveal a complex and surprising reality. Large majorities in nearly all nations surveyed (95 per cent in Burkina Faso, 94 per cent in Egypt, 93 per cent in Iran, and 9o per cent in Indonesia) say that if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as "allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day."

However, while acknowledging and admiring many aspects of Western democracy, those surveyed do not favour wholesale adoption of Western models. Many appear to want their own democratic model that incorporates Sharia — and not one that is simply dependent on Western values. Actually, few respondents associate "adopting Western values" with Muslim political and economic progress. Abuses in the name of Sharia have not led to wholesale rejection of it.

In our data, the emphasis that those in substantially Muslim countries give to a new model of government — one that is democratic yet embraces religious values — helps to explain why majorities in most countries, with the exception of a handful of nations, want Sharia as at least "a" source of legislation.

In only a few countries did a majority say that Sharia should have no role in society; yet in most countries, only a minority want Sharia as "the only source" of law. In Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangla-desh, majorities want Sharia as the "only source" of legislation.

Most surprising is the absence of systemic differences in many countries between males and females in their support for Sharia as the only source of legislation.

For example, in Jordan, 54 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women want Sharia as the sole source of legislation. In Egypt, the percentages are 70 percent of men and 62 per cent of women; in Iran, 12 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women; and in Indonesia, 14 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women.

Ironically, we don't have to look far from home to find a significant number of people who want religion as a source of law. In the United States, a 2006 Gallup Poll indicates that a majority of Americans want the Bible as a source of legislation.

Forty-six per cent of Americans say the Bible should be "a" source, and 9 per cent believe it should be the "only" source of legislation.

Perhaps even more surprising, 42 per cent of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55 per cent want them to play no role at all. These numbers are almost identical to those in Iran.

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The misconception of a religion

September 11 attacks have doubled fear of the faith in the US.

The failures of governments, the hijacking of Islam by rulers and by terrorists, as well as assassinations, suicide attacks and abuse of women and minorities have taken their toll on Muslim societies and on the image of Islam in the West.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in 2006 found that nearly half of Americans — 46 per cent — have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than observed a few months after September 11, 2001. According to the poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that Islam helps stoke violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled since the 9/11 attacks, from 14 per cent in January 2002 to 33 per cent. Similarly, a Pew Research Centre survey found that about a third of Americans (36 per cent) say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its followers.

In contrast, the majority in the Muslim world see Islam through different eyes — as a moderate, peaceful religion that is central to their self-understanding and their success. As we saw in the last chapter, overwhelming numbers of Muslims continue to identify religion as a primary marker of their identity, a source of guidance and strength, and crucial to their progress.

With the exception of Kazakhstan, majorities of those surveyed in Gallup Polls of countries with substantial Muslim populations (as high as 98 per cent in Egypt, 96 per cent in Indonesia, and 86 per cent in Turkey) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives.

This compares with 68 per cent of respondents in the US and 28 per cent of respondents in the UK for whom religion is an important part of their daily lives. Yet democracy is among the most frequent responses given as a key to a more just society and to progress. When asked to describe aspects of life that are important to them, significant numbers cite having an enriched religious and spiritual life and a democratically elected government as at least very important.

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Who's democracy is it anyway?

Many Muslims feel sceptical of America's intentions in encouraging such political systems across the globe.

If democracy is a desired goal for many Muslims and for US foreign policy, do Muslims believe the West has any role to play? To answer this question, we need to look at some sobering realities. There are a number of challenges in the plan to win the minds and hearts of Muslims; feedback to multiple questions in the Gallup Poll reflects criticisms and scepticism about US foreign policies and actions. Although there was widespread desire for democracy, which many Muslims view as necessary for their progress, with the exception of 10 countries surveyed, majorities disagree with the statement that "the US is serious about encouraging the establishment of democratic systems of government in this region."

Muslim attitudes toward the United States have been affected by what is perceived as America's — and to a great extent Europe's — "double standard" in promoting democracy: its long track record of supporting authoritarian regimes and failure to promote democracy in the Muslim world as it did in other areas and countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a major policy address in 2002, Ambassador Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, remarked that before the invasion of Iraq, both Democratic and Republican administrations practised "democratic exceptionalism" in the Muslim world, subordinating democracy to other national interests such as accessing oil, containing the Soviet Union, and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More recently, Muslim cynicism about the United States promoting democracy has grown for a number of reasons: the use of "creating democracy" as a retroactive rationale for invading Iraq only after weapons of mass destruction in that country didn't materialise; the impression that the United States was orchestrating an "acceptable" American version of democracy in Iraq with its own hand-picked "George Washington," Ahmad Chalabi; and the trail of human rights abuses from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. US and European refusal to recognise the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine further reinforces such impressions.

"They (US officials) are all for democracy as long as they like the results," Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, told The Financial Times. Roth believes that America's mission to promote democracy has become equated with "regime change" and has lost credibility in the Muslim world. "Its push for democracy is over now," he said.

In The Washington Post, Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian analyst and former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, echoed Roth's pessimism: It's a success story for Al Qaida, a success story for autocratic Arab regimes that made democracy look ugly in their people's eyes. They can say to their people: "Look at the democracy that the Americans want to bring to you. Democracy is trouble. You may as well forget about what the Americans promise you. They promise you death."

Worldwide Muslim opinions have been influenced by the explosion in mass communications that has swept across much of the Muslim world and outstripped the control of governments.

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