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Who Speaks for Islam?

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Both Esposito and Mogahed work for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, which claims as its mission to provide data-driven analyses on the views of Muslims around the world. Esposito is known in his own right as a Sunni convert to Islam and a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, famous for Muslim-Christian interfaith work, some of it funded by the royal family in Saudi Arabia.

This book is a very fast read based on Gallup's World Poll that seeks to address common, if biased, views of Muslims, with the results of the survey claiming to represent the actual views of Muslims. Thus, it cannot be construed as representing an official Islamic viewpoint, but rather the views from a sample intended to represent 90% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

Some of the supposedly surprising revelations of this study are practically humorous in a sad, insulting way: one "counterintuitive discovery" is "When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don't mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job." Other similarly hardly amazing tidbits are presented in the course of five chapters: Who are Muslims?, Democracy or Theocracy?, What Makes a Radical?, What do Women Want?, and Clash or Coexistence?

In the first chapter, we learn the basics of Islam, such as that "Muslims pray not only as a religious obligation, but also because it makes them feel closer to God." A gray box highlighting brief, important facts occurs on many pages throughout the book, and one in this chapter tells us Islam means, "a strong commitment to God", implying that is how the Arabic translates.

In the second chapter, we learn results of the survey, indicating views that Muslims do not want wholesale adoption of Western democracy in their countries, but at the same time, a majority of Americans don't either, saying that they want the Bible as a major source of legislation. There is an unmistakable, but overdone, effort to show that American views and Muslim views are much closer than many think.

The third chapter contains questionable altruisms like, "The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety," leaving open the possible interpretation that a truly pious person could condone terrorism. This brings to question the definition of piety employed by the authors and the survey.

In the fourth chapter, we learn things such as that while Western women view the Hijab as showing inferior status of women, Muslims view lack of modesty in Western women as showing their degraded status.

And in the last chapter, we find out results like Muslims don't "hate us because of our freedom." The book concludes with an appendix explaining the scientific design of the poll, how it was conducted, and notes.

The book also draws on numerous other poll results, news articles, and interviews. For example, it refers to a 2005 Christian Science Monitor interview of Jenan al-Ubaedy, a female member of Iraq's National Assembly. She told the newspaper 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." I doubt Ms. Al-Ubaedy would have found the use of "however" as appropriate, as if what she was fighting for in equal pay and maternity leave were in opposition to Islamic law as she understood it.

While the poll itself is statistically valid and possibly even worthwhile for addressing certain misconceptions about Muslims, I struggled to think of an audience that this book would actually reach. Anyone who found the majority of the study results as enlightening is unlikely to be open-minded enough to read the book or believe the poll results anyway. Further, the authors seem to have several questionable interpretations and views, such as a few mentioned earlier, as if they are going too far to adapt to their perceived audience. It seems to have been written too quickly and with too many questionably worded sentences, such as the one about terrorism and piety or the one about Ms. Al-Ubaedy's interview, that can allow for incorrect negative impressions about Islam that the book is supposedly aiming to dispel. Thus, the sincerity of the intent of the work is called to question.

If you like reading interesting takes on statistics, such as Freakonomics by Stephen D. Levitt, there is still some enjoyment to be had in reading this book. I could now cite in a dinner conversation that 88 percent of Muslims polled in the survey support women's right to vote, or that 80 percent of Iranians say that bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are never justified, while only 46 percent of Americans surveyed agreed, but that you might get a different result if you substitute "terrorist attacks" in place of "attacks intentionally aimed at civilians."  

I can't help thinking that a much better book could have been written with the results from the survey than this one. Despite the academic nature of the survey, when I finished the book, I felt like I had just read something only pseudo-academic, flawed, off-target for an intended audience, and with questionable intent.

Author of this article: Masooma Beatty
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