Book Review

What do Muslims around the world believe?

By Charles A. Radin
May 14, 2008

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Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think
By John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed
Gallup, 230 pp., $22.95

John L. Esposito, professor of Islamic studies and international affairs at Georgetown University, is at the forefront of scholars representing Muslims to Americans as benign believers in the one God, people much like their cousins in Judaism and Christianity in their aspirations for peace, prosperity, and democracy.

Since the 9/11 attacks, he has produced several books exploring, in reassuring tones, this faith that so many now fear. His latest effort, "Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think," uses extensive polling by the Gallup Organization to make the case that there is no clash of civilizations, and that most frictions between the Islamic world and the West could be remedied by changes in US foreign policy.

The polling data contain much that is informative and thought-provoking. The analysis by Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, is sometimes dead-on. Sometimes, though, it wanders off into irrelevancy and apologetics.

No one who reads this book could come away puzzled about why moderate Muslims fear and distrust the United States. In Iran, the United States brought down the first democratically elected moderate Muslim government, in 1953. Since then, it has backed a seemingly endless stream of kings, dictators, and military strongmen in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Esposito's explanation of the difference between sharia and Islamic law is illuminating and potentially useful to would-be bridge builders from other religions. Sharia he likens to a compass, the divinely revealed truth that cannot change. Islamic law is like a map drawn by those holding the compass. It is the work of humans, and therefore subject to change.

He makes much of the fact that moderates and reformers now are trying to employ sharia to rein in practices such as polygamy and female genital mutilation. However, he fails to report whether such efforts are succeeding.

Such omissions, coupled with a weak section on the advantages women enjoy in Islamic society, make him sound at points more like an apologist than a researcher. Or maybe the co-authors got carried away by all that polling data.

The vital question is not really whether a majority of Muslim women want to wear the veil or be circumcised, but whether most Muslims, whatever their beliefs, support the rights of minorities, within Islam or in other religious communities, to live according to their own values.

Many intriguing questions suggested by the data go unaddressed. What does it mean, for example, that 58 percent of Saudi men say women should be allowed to vote, and at the same time 55 percent say women should not be allowed to drive alone?

The authors simply do too much aggregating of the data, and too little disaggregating. They describe as a "surprising conclusion" their finding that Muslims "like people of other faiths are geographically, racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse." This is certainly no surprise to anyone who has tried to learn more about Muslims in the years since 9/11.

The authors fail to identify the differences among these various Muslim cultures on points of concern to non-Muslims. For example, from where does the supercessionist idea - that one's religion represents the culmination and perfection of divine revelation, and is destined to dominate the world - draw its greatest strength among Muslims?

Such beliefs are not different, and probably not stronger, than the supercessionist sentiments among the Christians masterfully identified by James Carroll in "Constantine's Sword."

It was an idea that led to centuries of religious wars and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. Not to treat it in a book on who speaks for Islam is a grievous omission.

Charles A. Radin, a former religion and Middle East correspondent for the Globe, works on international affairs programming at Brandeis University.