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What Muslims Really Think

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

While on the debating circuit pounding atheists--a pastime I am really getting to enjoy--I have just started reading Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito's Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. It's one of the first books to put some real data behind a much-disputed question.


For several years now liberal and conservative pundits have been pontificating about the Muslim world, usually without a shred of data. I was amused last year to cross swords with some of my fellow conservatives like Scott Johnson and Victor Davis Hanson. These ideologues seem of the opinion that the average Muslim is a crazed polygamist who is ready to blow himself up. No surprise: this is supposedly what Muslims all learn in the school where they read nothing but the Koran! Only pundits who have no exposure to Muslim countries, Muslim history and Muslim people can go on like this.

For such gurus, Islam itself is the problem and nothing short of an Islamic Reformation headed by ex-Muslims like Hirsi Ali and will show the Muslim world where it has gone wrong over the past five centuries. I admire Ali and sympathize with her hardships, but how likely is it that Muslims will follow a woman who the author of a book titled Infidel? In Christianity, the Reformation was led by a devout Martin Luther and not by skeptics and freethinkers like Hume or Voltaire.

Practical difficulties aside, we often forget the simple fact that Islam has been around for 1300 years and Islamic terrorism has been around for a few decades. Yes, one can find isolated instances in Islamic history of fanatical groups like the Assassins, but these are hardly typical of the Islamic regimes that have ruled for centuries. The intelligent questions to ask are, what is it about Islam today that has made it an incubator of radicalism and terrorism? And second, what do most Muslims really think about the West?


Fortunately there is an increasing body of reliable data on Muslim beliefs. One source is the World Values Survey, which has the benefit of tracking opinions over a period of decades. Another is the Gallup surveys which are now under the aegis of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, a group headed by Mogahed. Esposito is one of the most respected American authorities on Islam. I am only getting into their book, but here I offer my own hypothesis, and then I'm going to find out if their data vindicate it.

The problem for Muslims is not Christianity or Judaism. In fact, Islam sees itself as incorporating both in much the same way that Christianity sees itself as incorporating Judaism. Moses and Christ are considered prophets in Islam. If you read the propaganda of the radical Muslims, they almost never condemn the West for being a Christian society. They typically describe the West as an atheist and immoral society. Bin Laden has called America “the leading power of the pagans and unbelievers.”

The problem for most Muslims is Western liberalism. But here we must distinguish between two kinds of liberalism. There is the classical liberalism of the American founding. Call this Liberalism 1. This liberalism is reflected in such principles as the right to vote, to assemble freely, to debate issues, to trade with others, to practice one’s religion, political and religious toleration, and so on.


Then there is the modern liberalism of the 1960s. Call this Liberalism 2. This liberalism is defined by such tenets as the right to blaspheme, the complete exclusion of religious symbols from the public square, the right of teenage boys and girls to receive sex education and contraceptives, the right to abortion, prostitution as a worker's right, pornography as a protected form of expression, gay rights and gay marriage, and so on. It is this second type of liberalism that seems to drive the social agenda of today's Democratic Party. For example, Hillary Clinton chaired a presidential task force during the 1990s that promoted prostitution as an international right for workers.

Now we are in a better position to understand Islamic attitudes regarding the West. The vast majority of Muslims worldwide embrace Liberalism 1 while rejecting Liberalism 2. They are generally comfortable with classical liberalism while abhorring the tenets of modern liberalism. And by equating America with such things as blasphemy, pornography, prostitution and homosexuality, the radical Muslims appeal to ordinary Muslims to join their cause in a battle against the Great Satan. This is what I have argued in my recent book The Enemy at Home. The book is just out in paperback, with an Afterward responding to my critics on the right and the left. I always try and learn from my critics, and I’m also interested to see how my thesis stands up in light of Mogahed and Esposito's data.


Of course today's liberals will chafe at the idea that their values are producing a powerful "blowback" from the House of Islam. That's why we need good empirical work like this book. Let us find out what Muslims really think, and then let us look at the propaganda of the radical Muslims to see how they rally traditional Muslims to their side. Who cares if liberals don't like to admit what is going on? People are entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts.

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