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Negative Stereotypes Persist Between West and Muslims

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 21 2011 (IPS) - Westerners and Muslims continue to hold negative stereotypes of each other, although views of Muslims in the West appear to have improved marginally over the past five years, according to a new survey released here by the Pew Global Attitudes Project Thursday.

Nonetheless, the survey, which was based on in-depth interviews with respondents in six predominantly Christian and six predominantly Muslim countries, as well as in Israel and the Palestinian Territories (PT), used the same words as in its last study on the subject, released in 2006, to describe how each group saw the other.

“Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical and violent …,” it concluded. At the same time, “Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy – as well as violent and fanatical.”

“The survey obviously gives evidence to those who think there is pretty much an intense and entrenched divide (between the two groups),” noted Andrew Kohut, the Project’s founder and director.

The survey, and the 34-page analysis that accompanied it, found that Westerners tend to hold more favourable views of Muslims than the other way around.

It also found that majorities or pluralities of respondents in all but three of the countries surveyed said they believed “some religions are more prone to violence than others.”

Among Christian respondents who agreed with that assertion, overwhelming majorities said that Islam was the most violent.

Among respondents in predominantly Muslim countries, on the other hand, similar majorities named Judaism as the most violent. Turkey, however, was an exception: 45 percent pf respondents who said some religions were more violent than others named Christianity as the most violent; 41 percent chose Judaism.

Western or predominantly Christian nations covered by the survey included the United States, Spain, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia. Predominantly Muslim countries included Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as the PT. An average of 1,000 interviews was conducted in each country in March and April this year.

With the notable exception of Indonesia, majorities or pluralities in all countries said relations between Muslims and Westerners were “generally bad”, as opposed to “generally good”. Palestinians (72 percent) were the most negative, while opinion in the U.S. was most evenly divided: 48 percent said relations were “generally bad”, while 43 percent said they were “generally good”.

Nonetheless, the percentage of respondents in all Western countries who chose the “bad” option was lower – in the case of Russia, Britain, and Germany, substantially lower – than in 2006.

On the other hand, the percentage in most Muslim countries who described relations as bad rose over the same period; in Pakistan, there was a whopping 20-percent increase compared to 2006.

Of those respondents who said relations were bad, strong majorities of Muslims blamed Westerners or Jews, while an average of about 40 percent of Western respondents said either Westerners or both Muslims and Westerners were mainly at fault.

Asked whether they were concerned or unconcerned about “Islamic extremism” in their countries, strong majorities (from 61 percent in Spain to 73 percent in Germany) in all Western nations said they were concerned. That was on average about five percent less than the percentage who said they were concerned five years ago. In Russia, however, those who said they were concerned increased from 74 percent to 76 percent.

There was a comparable reduction in concern about Islamic extremism in most Muslim countries – and major declines of 22 percent in Jordan and 11 percent in Pakistan – over the five years. In Turkey, on the other hand, 52 percent of respondents said they were concerned – up from 45 percent in 2006.

Remarkably, the most widespread worries about “Islamic extremism” were found in both Palestine and Israel where nearly four of five residents voiced concern.

In four of the six predominantly Christian nations, majorities of respondents said they held generally positive views of Muslims. The two exceptions were Germany (45 percent) and Spain (37 percent) – the two countries where views of Muslims showed the greatest improvement – 10 percent – compared to 2006.

As for predominantly Muslim countries, pluralities or majorities of respondents, ranging from 48 percent in Egypt to an overwhelming 96 percent in Lebanon, said they held a positive view of Christians. In contrast, however, only 16 percent of Pakistanis and six percent of Turks agreed – a decline of 10 percent in both countries from five years ago.

And while strong majorities in all Western countries held positive views of Jews, favourable opinions of Jews in all predominantly Muslim countries were hard to find. In Indonesia, nine percent of respondent said they held positive views of Jews, while in the other Muslim countries, favourable views ranged from two to four percent.

Among Muslim Israelis, opinions of Jews were evenly split, while only nine percent of Jewish Israelis said they held positive views of Muslims.

As to specific traits, the median percentage of respondents in all six predominantly Muslim countries and the PT who described Westerners as “selfish” came to 68 percent; as “violent”, 66 percent; as “greedy”, 64 percent; as “immoral”, 61 percent; as “arrogant”, 57 percent; and as “fanatical”, 53 percent. The harshest views were found in Jordan and Egypt; the least harsh in Lebanon.

Westerners were generally less tough on Muslims. Fifty-eight percent said Muslims were “fanatical”; 50 percent said they were “violent”; 39 percent, “arrogant”; 35 percent, “selfish”, 23 percent “immoral”; and 20 percent, “greedy”. Fifty-one percent of westerners also described Muslims as “honest”. The harshest views were found in Spain; the least harsh in Britain.

Majorities in all six Western nations said they believed Muslims living in their countries did not want to assimilate with the rest of society. That view was particularly widespread in Germany (72 percent), Spain (69 percent), and Russia (66 percent).

But younger and better educated respondents were more likely to disagree with that view. Indeed, those who were younger and more educated in the West generally held more favourable views of Muslims than their less educated and older countrymen and women, according to the survey.

In Muslim countries, on the other hand, that division did not apply, according to Kohut, who said more favourable views of Westerners in the Muslim world tended to be held by those who had had some contact with Westerners either directly or through their families and friends.

Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, strong majorities of Muslim respondents ranging from 57 percent in Pakistan to 75 percent in Egypt do not believe that Arabs were responsible. Scepticism about Arab involvement in the attacks is significantly more widespread in Jordan, Egypt and Turkey than five years ago, according to the survey.

The survey also found that Muslim respondents tended much more to identify themselves as Muslims first and as citizens of their countries second than did Christian Westerners. That tendency was especially pronounced in Pakistan where 94 percent of respondents said they considered themselves Muslims first and Pakistanis second.

Lebanese and Palestinian respondents were the exceptions: pluralities in both countries identified themselves first with their nationality rather than with their religion.

Among Christian respondents in the West, strong majorities, with the exception of the U.S., identified with their nationality first. Christians in the U.S., however, were evenly split between those who identified themselves primarily by nationality and by their religion.

In Israel, nearly six out of 10 Jewish respondents identified themselves primarily as Jewish, as opposed to the 22 percent who considered themselves Israelis. Among Muslim Israelis, 77 percent identified themselves first by their religion, 10 percent by nationality.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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