Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do Muslims have an image problem?

Do Muslims have an image problem?  The western media is reporting that a poor image of Pakistan may be behind the lacklustre response to fund raising appeals to support rescue efforts.  The widespread coverage of violent protests against western countries on the streets of Pakistan has indeed helped generate a negative stereotype of Pakistan.

While we may not be able to quantify how the rest of the world views Pakistan, we may still be able to tell what people think of Muslims in general, who may have a high opinion of themselves, but the more important question to explore is how does the rest of the world see Muslims?

The Pew Global Attitudes Project conducts opinion polls about matters of global interest.  The opinion poll conducted in spring 2009 carried a question about what opinion people had of Muslims.  The question was put to 20,000-plus respondents in 25 countries, including some Muslim majority countries. I got hold of the raw dataset, which  I analyzed to determine if people held a favourable or unfavourable opinion of Muslims.

As expected, Muslims living in Muslim majority countries indeed had a very high opinion of themselves.  However, a very large segment of respondents from Muslim minority countries reported having somewhat or very unfavourable view of Muslims.  No fewer than 42% respondents hailing from Muslim minority countries reported unfavourable opinion of Muslims.  On the other hand, only 10% respondents from Muslim majority countries reported unfavourable opinion of Muslims.

The graph below indicates that Egyptians, Indonesians, Lebanese and Pakistanis have the most favourable opinion of Muslims, as is indicated by the green colour bars.  Over 90% of the respondents in these countries reported a favourable opinion of Muslims.  Not much surprise there.


On the other hand, the least favourable, or most unfavourable, view of Muslims was recorded in Israel where almost every four in five respondents reported an unfavourable opinion of Muslims.  Surprisingly, the second highest unfavourable view of Muslims was reported in China where 65% respondents held an unfavourable opinion of Muslims.  While the Pakistanis may think of China as a steadfast friend, only 16% Chinese reported favourable opinion of Muslims.

Also surprising is the fact that 56% Japanese held an unfavourable opinion of Muslims. India is another country where the majority (greater than 50% of the respondents) reported an unfavourable opinion of Muslims. Japan seems an anomaly because unlike China, India, and Israel, which have territorial disputes with Muslim minorities, Japan has no such outstanding disputes involving Muslims. Similarly, 48% South Koreans, who  hold an unfavourable opinion of Muslims, seem odd as well because South Koreans do not have any direct conflict involving Muslims. However, South Koreans could have been incensed by the fact that most Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have shoddy dealings with DPRK, South Korea’s archrival.

It appears that Latin American countries are the most ignorant of Muslims where 42% respondents in Argentina, 38% respondents in Mexico, and 20% respondents in Brazil did not have any opinion about Muslims.  Since a large number of respondents in Latin American countries expressed ignorance about Muslims, these countries therefore reported the lowest favourable (not necessarily unfavourable) opinion of Muslims amongst the Muslim minority countries.

France with 63% favourable opinion of Muslims had the highest favourable view of Muslims amongst Muslim minority countries followed by Great Britain, Canada, Kenya, Russia, and United States.  Almost 61% respondents in Canada and 59% respondents in the United States reported a favourable opinion of Muslims.  Unlike other countries listed here, Canada and the United States stand out for their favourable opinion of Muslims.  While France and Great Britain are home to sizable Muslim populations, the same is not true for the United States and Canada, and therefore a large proportion of population reporting favourable opinion of Muslims represents the views of non Muslims Canadians and Americans.

Amongst Muslim majority countries, Turkey and Palestinian Territories standout for having an unexpectedly high unfavourable view of Muslims.  Almost one in five respondents in Turkey and Palestinian Territories reported an unfavourable view of Muslims.  The determinants of this self hate phenomena could be of great interest to social scientists.

So the short answer to the question if Muslims have an image problem is yes.  This is evident from the fact that almost 42% respondents in Muslim minority countries reported unfavourable opinion of Muslims.  The long answer to the same question is also yes, but it comes with a caveat.  Whereas Muslims are, to a large extent, responsible for their poor image, those who create that image in the west also share some blame.

The electronic and print media plays a big role in shaping opinions in the west.  To a very large extent, western audiences form their opinions from what they learn from the mainstream news media.  Thus the 6:00 pm news telecast goes a long way in shaping public opinion in western countries.

It has always been convenient for the western journalists visiting Muslim majority countries to focus their cameras on fire-breathing, flag burning crowds of bearded, mostly unemployed, youths marching down the urban streets.  The fact that almost 50% of the population in most Muslim countries is under the age of 25, along with being unemployed, poorly educated, frustrated, and disenfranchised by political and military regimes, it should not come as a surprise that streets in Muslim majority countries routinely become scenes of violent protests.

But what about those who live in the heartland in the same Muslim majority countries.  To date, most Muslim majority countries are largely rural with fewer than 35% population residing in urban centres.  What do the rural youths in Muslim heartland think?  What are their aspirations, fears, and hopes?

We don't know the answer to these questions because finding those answers would require journalists to visit the rural landscapes in Muslim majority countries.  There they may not find violent protests against the west, but instead they may find daily struggle to survive in good times, and the hopes to one day be able to rebuild after natural disasters.

These scenes of struggle to make the ends meet may not generate the sensational footage needed for the 6:00 PM telecasts.

The claim that the western journalists stay cocooned in five star hotels and do not explore the countryside, where most Muslims live, may sound exaggerated. However, I have numbers to prove my case. Consider The New York Times, a premier news outlet that prints “All the News That's Fit to Print.” In 2009, NYT published 286 stories filed from within Pakistan. Out of those 286 stories, 63% stories were filed from the federal capital, Islamabad. Another 14% stories were filed from Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 8% stories were filed from Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. The correspondents for New York Times filed only 15% stories from places other than Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar, a fact I illustrate in the following graphic.

This is certainly odd. The combined population of Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar is less than 8 million in a nation of 170 million. However, the New York Times files 85% of its stories in Pakistan from a population base of just 5%. Other western media active in Pakistan is no different. I would call this lazy journalism, which has dreadful consequences as could be seen from the lack of sympathy in the west for flood-soaked Pakistanis.

So yes, Muslims do have an image problem, however it would help if the western journalists trek farther than the lobbies of luxury hotels in cities, and seek out the common Muslim man or woman in the rural heartland, rather than always calling on the demagogues in Muslim majority countries, who compete with each other in making the most outrageous statements against the west.

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