02/28/2007 12:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are the World's Muslims More "Civilized" Than Americans?

If we're engaged in a "fight for the future of civilization" against Islam, can we be sure we're on the pro-civilization side? That's one, provocative way to read a new poll from Terror Free Tomorrow, which concludes that "Americans are more approving of terrorist attacks against civilians than any major Muslim country except for Nigeria."

Those are the words of Michael Ballen, Terror Free Tomorrow's Director.

So is Ballen some wild-eyed hippie, and is his organization one of those peacenik groups? Hardly. The first name listed on their Advisory Board is John McCain. Former GOP Senator Slade Gorton's there, too. In fact, Lee Hamilton is the only Democrat on the list, and he's not exactly a flower child.

The survey was conducted by the Program on International Public Attitudes at the University of Maryland, whose work is extremely well-regarded. They found that Americans were far more willing to condone attacks deliberately aimed at civilians than were the residents of the largest Muslim countries in the world.

Ballen writes:

Only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified," while 24 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified."

Contrast those numbers with 2006 polling results from the world's most-populous Muslim countries - Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Terror Free Tomorrow, the organization I lead, found that 74 percent of respondents in Indonesia agreed that terrorist attacks are "never justified"; in Pakistan, that figure was 86 percent; in Bangladesh, 81 percent.

So much for Islam being a "religion of hate." That's a misperception that's being thrown around in our country by a handful of bloodthirsty Christians like Rev. Franklin Graham - and by at least one atheist, too. They're not only spreading misinformation, they're helping weaken America's ability to defend itself against future terror attacks.

Are we really less "civilized" than Pakistanis or Indonesians? By many measures (e.g. economic, technical, individual freedoms) clearly not, but this is one test of civility that we've clearly flunked. I love my country, but this poll should make some zealots stop and think. The unwillingness to hurt innocent people in war has always been a measure of what distinguishes just and fair societies from extremist ones.

What has made us so willing as a nation to take innocent life? Is it our society, religion, culture, media? The fact that we had never been attacked on the mainland until 9/11, and so had never experienced a war against our civilian population?Our celebrity-driven electoral system, and the big money that drives it? The Media/Military/Industrial Complex? All of the above?

I would argue that elements within each are to blame. It's certainly a worthwhile area for debate and study. In that vein, it's worth noting that a U. S. Army General asked the makers of "24" to stop promoting torture, because it's endangering our troops and harming our national security. They blew him off, even though one of them also produces Fox's widely panned "conservative comedy" show. (But then, Fox supports the President's policies in Iraq and a majority of our soldiers there don't.)

It's not just uncivilized to inflame the kind of aggression reflected in this poll. People who do it weaken our national defense, and they don't support our troops. Franklin Graham, Uncle Sam wants you - to zip it.

There is certainly an element in many Muslim countries that seeks to do us harm, and we're kidding ourselves to think otherwise. That means we need to study, identify, and isolate that element if we are going to combat it successfully. Part of that effort includes understanding the real relationship between Muslim terrorism and Islam itself.

Robert Pape's study of suicide bombers revealed that many of them weren't even Muslim. In fact, some were Christian, some were atheist, some were Marxist. He identified other factors independent of religion that turned people into this kind of fanatical terrorist. There is also a rigid and fundamentalist streak within Islam that, when combined with these other factors, seems to create more fertile ground for terrorism than other forms of Muslim belief.

To defend ourselves we need to think clearly and intelligently about what turns people into terrorists, and how they behave once they turn to terrorism. Stereotypical thinking about Islamic populations hurts, not help, our national security efforts.

Ballen echoes this theme, which I've been pushing for years - and he's got the data to back it up. He writes that stereotypes of violent-minded Muslims, based on the actions of a tiny minority, are "affirmed by simplistic media coverage and many radicals themselves, (but) are not supported by the facts - and they are detrimental to the war on terror." (emphasis mine)

The last time I made that point in print I was invited onto Fox News Radio for a debate with Sean Hannity and Gary Bauer. Mr. Bauer (Gary, not Jack) asserted the "the war against Islamofascism is the defining challenge of our times." But what is Islamofascism? Clumsy labels like that alienate a large body of people who, according to this study, have more peaceful intentions toward innocent civilians than we do.

The study isn't complete, by any means. I'd like to see this poll conducted in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, too - although I'm not sure the leadership there would permit it. But it's a start, and it's an opportunity to re-examine some long-held assumptions and biases.

Terror Free Tomorrow's polling has also shown than U.S. aid to Islamic countries decreases support for anti-American activities throughout the Muslim world. That sounds like a good investment in the "war on terror." And I would suggest that one of the real "defining challenges of our times" is how to become a more just and humane people. Ironically, that may also prove to be our best defense against terror.

All this "clash of civilizations" talk brings to mind Mahatma Gandhi's response when asked what he thought of "Western civilization":

"I think it would be a good idea,
" he replied.


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