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There is a lot of information, but it's sometimes more noise than knowledge, says Dalia Mogahed, referring to the lack of accurate information on the real views of Muslims, and the ensuing misunderstanding between the Western and Muslim worlds.
"I think one of the main reasons that there's such a gap is because we find that it's only a vocal fringe that has been speaking on behalf of, in some cases, both societies. The vast majority of people have been silenced... And those people who are claiming to speak for them don't necessarily represent them."
Setting out to address this gap in accuracy, the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies, where Mogahed is Senior Analyst and Executive Director, relies on its polls of the opinions of Muslims around the world to provide data-driven analysis and give global leaders, institutions, and the public the accurate information needed to make good decisions.
"One of the most important components of that," says Mogahed, "is to understand the wisdom of the people. Our CEO realised that the United States was deeply engaged [in] and making a lot of decisions about a part of the world that they simply didn't understand."
Set up after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Centre asks Muslims in 40 predominantly Muslim countries, as well as Muslims in the West, their thoughts on education, religion, democracy, culture, financial prosperity and the media, as well as what needs to be done – on the part of both the West and the Muslim world – to improve relations between the two.
While people in the Arab World may not like the US Government, their suspicions do not extend to the American people, according to the Centre's findings. "There is generally a positive view of the American people, but not of the government... Hollywood has actually managed to humanise the American people and give them qualities that are likeable, so Americans are seen to be friendly, and this is by people who have never met one." Other qualities that the Muslims admire about the West include Western technology, ingenuity and business, as well as democracy, good governance, transparency, and freedom of the press.
On the contrary, when asked what they most admire about the Muslim world, the majority of Americans answer "nothing" or "I don't know".
The reason that Americans don't hold the same high-esteem for Muslims, Mogahed told Insead Knowledge, is because "there is virtually no media that is Muslim-made about Muslims in the US. When Muslims play a role in a movie or a TV programme it's often, according to many studies, in a negative way... where, oftentimes, Muslims play the role of terrorists or other negative characters."
As Mogahed noted in the closing keynote session at the Insead Leadership Summit Middle East 2010, "we have this gap between engagement by the government and a lack of complete knowledge by the public which is very dangerous for a democracy".
So has the Centre's "scientific evidence-based" approach to portraying Muslims led to a better relationship between the US and the Arab World?
Mogahed, who co-authored Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think and is involved in a White House Advisory Council, believes so.
"There has been a significant shift in tone," she told Insead Knowledge. "One excellent example is President [Barack] Obama's historical speech in Cairo in June, that I had the privilege of advising on and also attending. And the framing of the entire conversation has changed per research that shows that the issue is not a lack of admiration of American values... [rather] they are concerned that America has negative opinions of them and that the issue is around respect."
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