WASHINGTON, D.C. - Extremists and terrorism have too often monopolized the media's coverage and thus the apparent message coming out of the Muslim world. But what does the vast majority of mainstream Muslims really believe, think and feel? What are their hopes, fears and resentments? Why is it that a robust anti-Americanism seems to pervade the Muslim world? Is it the sign of a clash of cultures -- do they hate who we are? Or is it what we do?
Rather than listening to extremists or simply relying on the opinions of individual pundits, why not give voice to the silenced majority? We asked Muslims around the world what they really think and discovered that when we let the data lead the discourse, it becomes clear: If the problem is radical Islam, the solution is moderate Islam.
Our new study, "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think," reflects the views of 1.3 billion Muslims. The book is based on six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews conducted in more than 35 predominantly Muslim nations or nations with sizable Muslim populations. Representing more than 90 percent of the world's Muslim communities, this poll is the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind. The results defy conventional wisdom and the inevitability of a global conflict -- even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.
The study produced some surprises. It showed that Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable. Those who do choose violence and extremism are driven by politics, not poverty or piety. In fact, of the 7 percent of respondents who did believe that 9/11 was justified, none of them hated our freedom; they want our freedom. But they believe that America -- and the western world in general -- operate with a double standard and stand in the way of Muslims determining their own future.
We are bombarded with images of angry Muslim teens taking part in violent demonstrations or being trained in al-Qaida camps. This study showed, however, that the vast majority of young Muslims aren't dreaming of going to war; they are dreaming of finding work. Similarly, when asked about their hopes for the future, Muslims of all ages said they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
The findings also revealed that Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratization. At the same time, they claim that society should be built upon Islamic values and that the shari'a (Islamic law) should be a source of law. They don't see the two as being mutually exclusive.
The West will be pleased to learn that nine out of 10 Muslims are moderates -- good news for those optimistic about co-existence. Muslims say the most important thing Westerners can do to improve relations with their societies is to change their negative views toward Muslims, respect Islam and re-evaluate their foreign policies.
The unfortunate news is that there is a large number of politically radicalized Muslims (the 7 percent previously mentioned, which translates to approximately 91 million individuals) that could be pushed to support or perpetrate violence against civilians. Challenges for the West will only grow as long as these Muslims continue to feel politically dominated and disregarded.
The research suggests that conflict between Muslims and the West is not inevitable, and is in fact more about policy than religion. However, until and unless decision makers listen directly to the people and gain a more accurate understanding of these misperceptions, extremists on all sides will continue to gain ground.