Who speaks for Islam? This question forms the title of a new book authored by John L. Esposito, director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. The book is meant to answer it. According to the authors, their aim is to settle important disputes regarding the attitudes and opinions of contemporary Muslims on a range of pressing questions.
Of course, the most important dispute is whether terrorists, like Al Qaeda and other radicals, speak for contemporary Muslims and for Islam itself. According to the authors, understanding this issue—”understanding extremists and the nature of extremism”—”requires a global perspective that extends beyond conflicting opinions of experts or anecdotes from the ‘Arab street.’” We need to go beyond dueling op-eds and books, and ground our opinions in hard facts by finding out “What do Muslims polled across the world have to say? How many Muslims hold extremist views? What are their hope and fears? What are their priorities? What do they admire, and what do they resent?” In the service of the right approach, the authors invoke no less an authority than Albert Einstein: “A man should look for what is, and not what he thinks should be.” In accord with this motto and the highest scientific standards, “the data should lead the discourse.”
Happily, according to the authors, we can now heed Einstein’s advice, through the good offices of the Gallup Organization. The book’s cover proudly proclaims that it is “Based on Gallup’s World Poll—the largest study of its kind,” and presents itself as an account of that poll.
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.
If not data, then what fills the pages of this book? In effect, we are given an opinion piece by Esposito and Mogahed—one not unlike the op-eds they decry, only much longer. Like op-eds, it is buttressed by anecdotal evidence, much of which is not even drawn from the survey. Indeed, given the partiality of the material they do draw from the survey, it too must be counted as anecdotal, notwithstanding the percentage signs which are scattered here and there. Moreover, the conclusions that Esposito and Mogahed draw, as well as their policy prescriptions, are indistinguishable from Esposito’s opinions, as expressed and disseminated in his books and articles long before Gallup polled its first Muslim. As in almost every Esposito product, the book even includes a chapter devoted to a description of the religion of Islam.
But to accept this book as an extended op-ed is not quite adequate. After all, Esposito claimed to apply a higher standard—that of “a man [who] should look for what is, and not what he thinks should be.” Seen in this light, the book is a confidence game or fraud, of which Esposito should be ashamed. So too should the Gallup Organization, its publisher.
The defective character of the book makes it exceptionally risky to address any of its specific “findings” and the policy prescriptions derived from them. This is partially because the authors either misunderstand or misrepresent their “data”—or both. But overall, according to this book, Muslims turn out to be pretty much like Americans. There is no “clash of civilizations” and no need for one. Muslims are not even essentially anti-American. In fact, they admire America for its democracy, technology and prosperity, and would like to have these benefits for themselves—benefits denied to them by the authoritarian governments under which they presently suffer. They are particularly keen on freedom of speech and other features of democratic life, including gender equality. The only issue is how they might best succeed in achieving democratic governance, and how America might assist that. The real cause of Muslim resentment against us is not our principles but our policies, which impede their progress and persuade them that we view them with contempt. Democracy and respect (”R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”) are all they want.
Well, not quite. There are some wrinkles that reveal a certain confusion on the part of Muslims which may even rise to the level of self-contradictions. The authors do not regard these as major issues, perhaps because they are confused themselves.
For example, while Muslims say they are for democracy, they are repulsed by its apparent corollary in America: the corruption of personal and especially sexual morals. But no matter. The authors observe that many Americans object to such moral corruption themselves. The authors likewise lament the “well-meaning” but misguided and high-handed approach of American feminists to the status of Muslim women. (One cannot help wondering whether Esposito would lend himself to a movement for the reform of morals, and especially the restoration of “female modesty,” on Georgetown’s campus.)
It thus 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?
We just can’t know the answers from what the authors choose tell us. But we and they do know how Americans understand and practice democracy. We also know that despite discontent with this or that consequence of democracy—including moral decay—Americans have been ready to run those risks rather than alter their fundamental principles. To suggest, then, that it is only our policies and not our principles which lead to a divide with the Muslim world is entirely wrong and extremely misleading. The authors’ dubious understanding of the issues, and especially the problem of “conflicts between the West and the Muslim world,” is summed up laughably in the book’s last paragraph. There we are told that 90 percent of Lebanese Christians and Muslims have a high regard for one another despite the long history of civil war. Perhaps this is so, but if Lebanon is a model of comity and harmony, it has escaped everyone’s notice except the authors.
And what about our policies? According to the authors, Muslims would like us to be supportive of their democratic efforts. Yet they also would like us not to interfere. This too presents a kind of confusion: they want to have their cake and eat it too. Well, who doesn’t? The interference is a consequence, not a cause. To suggest, as the authors constantly do, that the main problems Muslims face stem from outside does no service to Muslims or the truth. The book encourages Muslims and non-Muslims to avoid dealing with “what is,” and so ends up as a prime example of precisely that which its authors decry.