At the invitation of the Egyptian media, I attended President Obama's June 4th speech in Cairo and witnessed first-hand its impact on the audience. President Obama finished to a standing ovation, was interrupted more than 40 times with applause, and exited an auditorium of people chanting "O-Bah-Mah." The President electrified a cross section of Egyptian society in Cairo University's packed auditorium in a way few American leaders ever have.
How did the President of the United States, in the country with 2008's lowest approval rating for U.S. leadership, receive a rock star reception? What I heard from students, shopkeepers and the intellectual elites alike was that the President made them feel understood, even when they disagreed with him. They said Obama correctly identified and addressed the challenges dividing the U.S. from its Muslim majority counterparts, rather than ignoring or mischaracterizing them.
While much work lies ahead to turn raised global expectations into robust engagement, Obama's success in Cairo provides a valuable lesson in diplomacy: understanding perspectives we may not agree with makes us stronger, not weaker.
Attempting to cooperate with, influence, or even sell to publics we do not understand puts us at a strategic disadvantage versus those whose narratives we wish to counter. It is therefore in our national and economic interest to ask people directly what they think and listen carefully to their responses.
At Gallup, where I direct the Center for Muslim Studies, we do precisely this every day--measure and report what the world is thinking. While what we discover is not what some expect--or want to hear, denying these findings may help some score points with their ideological base, but only weakens our ability to meet our goals as a nation.
The new television series Who Speaks for Islam?, premiering on Link TV on Sunday, October 25th, explores many such findings on the attitudes of Muslims worldwide from the Gallup World Poll. The series will also stream in its entirety at LinkTV.org.
I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago when I spoke by phone on a UK based TV program called Muslimah Dilema. To my unpleasant surprise, I found out on air that I was joined by a member of Hizbul Tahrir (HT), a marginal but controversial group which denounces Western Democracy and calls for the creation of a pan-Islamic state in the Muslim world. The reaction to my reporting of Gallup's findings on Muslim views of democracy, gender and Shari'a (Islam's ethical and legal code) by both the HT representative and later the bloggers who've parsed my interview showed just how little either side was willing to understand the very people they so prolifically discuss.
The HT representative on the program dismissed or "reinterpreted" findings I presented so as to not challenge the group's simplistic utopian ideology which holds liberty in contempt as morally decadent. For example, as I regularly report, our research shows that far from denouncing democracy, Muslims around the world say it is among the things they most admire about the West, specifically mentioning "liberty" as a desirable attribute. Around the world, from Morocco to Malaysia, Muslim respondents described their respect for much of what the West holds dear: freedom of the press, the rule of law, and transparency and accountability of government.
As much as HT selectively ignored and exploited these findings to push their propaganda, many conservative pundits who diametrically oppose HT's vision of the world, did much the same. To them, my crime was that I reported that many Muslim women wanted sharia as a source of legislation. I also explained that Muslim women surveyed by Gallup said they believed they should have access to equal legal rights, free employment, voting without family influence, and even leadership positions in government. This suggests that many Muslim women see Sharia differently from those who use it to deny women rights. For simply stating results of survey research, I stood accused of "endorsing" Taliban-like rule, and downplaying the abuses done in the name of sharia.
Measuring and reporting what people believe does not mean agreement or endorsement. What it does mean is seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Factoring in this reality makes leaders stronger--their decisions are better informed, their communication is better targeted, and their outcomes are better anticipated. While some may find the facts inconvenient, the rest of us can benefit from our ability to engage in authentic dialogue, even when we disagree.