After Herman Cain’s recent declaration that American communities should be able to ban mosques, it would be easy to understand why relations between Muslim and Western countries might be strained. A new study from the Pew Center has some mildly hopeful news: although tensions between Muslim and Western publics are still palpable, they’ve gotten slightly better in the past five years. While both populations still hold negative stereotypes of each other, Westerners (i.e. US residents and Western Europeans) are less likely to say that they had bad relations with Muslim countries than in 2006. Muslims, however, aren’t as optimistic.
Ironically, each population characterized the other as “fanatical and violent.” Muslims in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia were likely to say that Westerners were “selfish, immoral and greedy,” while Westerners criticized the residents of Muslim countries for refusing to tolerate or respect women.
Even though Westerners think that relations are getting better, while Muslims say that their impressions of Westerners are as bad as they were five years ago, there may be more of a consensus on whose fault it is. Muslims overwhelmingly blamed the West for tensions, and while many Westerners did blame Muslim countries, a sizable percentage were also willing to point the finger at themselves.
In a change that perhaps reflects the general mood surrounding the Arab Spring, “Muslims and Westerners believe corrupt governments and inadequate education in Muslim nations are at least partly responsible for the lack of prosperity.” And both Muslims and Westerners are concerned about Islamic extremism.
What the report highlights is the extent to which assumptions about relations between Muslim and Western countries shape the stereotypes that the two populations assign to each other. It’s important, also, to break down these monolithic categories into area-specific groups. For example, Indonesian Muslims are more likely to associate positive traits with Westerners, while Pakistani Muslims (for obvious reasons) have increasingly negative feelings about Western relations.
Identity is also a slippery category. While Muslims overwhelmingly identify with their religion, rather than their country of origin, European Christians are equally likely to say that their national identity is more important than their religious identity. There is a palpable divide in the United States, although 7 in 10 evangelical Christians identify first with their religion. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong consensus among Westerners that Muslims living in the West did not want to assimilate into Western culture. People without college degrees were more likely to “believe that Muslims want to remain distinct from the broader society.”
While the report does not provide answers to mending the rift between Western and European countries, it does break down some of the complexities in fascinating ways.
Photo from Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar via flickr.