Aug 26 2010
The western media is reporting that a poor image of Pakistan may be behind the lacklustre response to fund-raising appeals to support rescue efforts. The widespread coverage of violent protests against western countries on the streets of Pakistan has indeed, helped generate a negative stereotype of Pakistan.
While we may not be able to quantify how the rest of the world views Pakistan, we may still be able to see how the rest of the world views Muslims in general.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project conducts opinion polls about matters of global interest. The opinion poll conducted in spring 2009 carried a question about what opinion people had of Muslims. The question was put to 20,000-plus respondents in 25 countries, including some Muslim majority countries. I got hold of the raw data set, which I analysed to determine whether people held a favourable or unfavourable opinion of Muslims.
As expected, Muslims living in Muslim majority countries indeed had a very high opinion of themselves. However, a very large segment of respondents from Muslim minority countries reported having somewhat of an unfavourable view of Muslims. No fewer than 42 per cent of the respondents hailing from Muslim minority countries reported unfavourable opinion of Muslims. On the other hand, only 10 per cent respondents from Muslim majority countries reported an unfavourable opinion of Muslims.
The graph below indicates that Egyptians, Indonesians, Lebanese and Pakistanis have the most favourable opinion of Muslims, as is indicated by the green colour bars. Over 90 per cent of the respondents in these countries reported a favourable opinion of Muslims. Not much surprise there.
On the other hand, the least favourable, or most unfavourable, view of Muslims was recorded in Israel where almost every four in five respondents reported an unfavourable opinion of Muslims. Surprisingly, the second highest unfavourable view of Muslims was reported in China with 65 per cent of the respondents holding an unfavourable opinion. While the Pakistanis may think of China as a steadfast friend, only 16 per cent Chinese replied positively to the questionnaire.
Also surprising is the fact that 56 per cent Japanese responded unfavourably while India is another country where the majority (greater than 50 per cent of the respondents) reported an unfavourable opinion. Japan seems an anomaly, because unlike China, India, and Israel which have territorial disputes with Muslim minorities, Japan has no such outstanding disputes involving Muslims. Similarly, 48 per cent South Koreans, who hold an unfavourable opinion of Muslims, seems odd as well because South Koreans do not have any direct conflict involving Muslims. However, South Koreans could have been incensed by the fact that most Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have shoddy dealings with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea’s archrival.
It appears that Latin American countries are the most ignorant of Muslims where 42 per cent respondents in Argentina, 38 per cent in Mexico, and 20 per cent respondents in Brazil did not have any opinion about Muslims. Since a large number of respondents in Latin American countries expressed ignorance about Muslims, these countries therefore reported the lowest favourable (not necessarily unfavourable) opinion of Muslims amongst the Muslim minority countries.
France with 63 per cent favourable opinion of Muslims had the highest favourable view of Muslims amongst Muslim minority countries followed by Great Britain, Canada, Kenya, Russia, and United States. Almost 61 per cent respondents in Canada and 59 per cent respondents in the United States reported a favourable opinion of Muslims. Unlike other countries listed here, Canada and the United States stand out for their favourable opinion of Muslims. While France and Great Britain are home to sizable Muslim populations, the same is not true for the United States and Canada, and therefore a large proportion of population reporting favourable opinion of Muslims represents the views of non Muslims Canadians and Americans.
Among the Muslim majority countries, Turkey and Palestinian Territories standout for having an unexpectedly high unfavourable view of Muslims. Almost one in five respondents in Turkey and Palestinian Territories reported an unfavourable view of Muslims. The determinants of this self-hate phenomena could be of great interest to social scientists.
So the short answer to whether Muslims have an image problem, is yes. This is evident from the fact that every four out of 10 respondents in Muslim minority countries reported unfavourable opinion of Muslims. The long answer to the same question is also yes, but it comes with a caveat. Whereas Muslims are, to a large extent, responsible for their poor image, those who create that image in the west also share some blame.
The electronic and print media plays a big role in shaping opinions in the west. To a very large extent, western audiences form their opinions from what they learn from the mainstream news media. Thus the 6:00 pm news telecast goes a long way in shaping public opinion in western countries.
It has always been convenient for the western journalists visiting Muslim majority countries to focus their cameras on fire-breathing, flag-burning crowds of bearded, mostly unemployed, youths marching down the urban streets. The fact that almost 50 per cent of the population in most Muslim countries is under the age of 25, along with being unemployed, poorly educated, frustrated, and disenfranchised by political and military regimes, it should not come as a surprise that streets in Muslim majority countries routinely become scenes of violent protests.
But what about those who live in the heartland in the same Muslim majority countries. To date, most Muslim majority countries are largely rural with fewer than 35 per cent population residing in urban centres. What do the rural youths in Muslim heartland think? What are their aspirations, fears and hopes?
We don’t know the answer to these questions because finding those answers would require journalists to visit the rural landscapes in Muslim majority countries. There they may not find violent protests against the west, but instead they may find daily struggle to survive in good times, and the hopes to one day be able to rebuild after natural disasters. These scenes of struggle to make the ends meet may not generate the sensational footage needed for the 6:00 PM telecasts.
The claim that the western journalists stay cocooned in five star hotels and do not explore the countryside, where most Muslims live, may sound exaggerated. However, I have numbers to prove my case. Consider The New York Times, which in 2009, published 286 stories filed from within Pakistan. Out of those 286 stories, 63 per cent stories were filed from the federal capital, Islamabad. Another 14 per cent stories were filed from Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, and 8 per cent stories were filed from Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. The correspondents for New York Times filed only 15 per cent stories from places other than Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar, as shown in the following graph.
This is certainly odd. The combined population of Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar is less than 8 million in a nation of 170 million. However, the New York Times files 85 per cent of its stories in Pakistan from a population base of just 5 per cent. Other western media active in Pakistan is no different. I would call this lazy journalism, which has dreadful consequences as could be seen from the lack of sympathy in the West for the millions of Pakistanis affected by the floods.
So yes, Muslims do have an image problem, however it would help if the western journalists trek farther than the lobbies of luxury hotels in cities, and seek out the common Muslim man or woman in the rural heartland, rather than always calling on the demagogues in Muslim majority countries, who compete with each other in making the most outrageous statements against the west.