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Political scientist Samuel Huntington depicted a clash of civilizations between the West and the House of Islam in his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which received new life after 9/11. Huntington and his admirers portrayed Muslim countries as incorrigibly illiberal and anti-Western, a view that has spread beyond the academy.

A major theme of the New Atheism is that fanaticism is intrinsic not only to Islam but to all of the Abrahamic religions. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, writes that "we are not at war with terrorism, we are at war with Islam." And in her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that only by turning against Islam and embracing Western secularism can Muslims—especially Muslim women—discover the blessings of freedom.

Certainly one could find anecdotal evidence (such as honor killings or Islamic groups cheering terrorist attacks) to argue that Muslims are enemies of modernity, liberalism, and freedom. But are these horror stories representative?

A wealth of data presents a different picture. Much of this data is summarized in John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed's Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (see "Islam According to Gallup," CT, Nov. 2008, page 38).

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At the same time, there are some anomalies. Esposito and Mogahed's analysis shows that Muslims fear that "Islam is under attack" and that the West is leading that attack. In addition, while most Muslims don't support theocracy, they do want religion to have an important role in shaping their private and public lives. Even Shari'ah, with its draconian provisions against theft and adultery, enjoys wide support among Muslims, at least in the domestic sphere.

To understand ...

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In the Magazine

July 2009

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