Book Reviews: Who Speaks For Islam?

Let the Awe and Mystery of a Journey Unlike Any Other Begin

The future is modern and secular…or so it was once thought. In the decades that followed World War II social scientists were convinced that with better technology and better education modern societies would quickly abandon religion. By the turn of the twenty-first century this secularization theory had been discredited: public expression of religion had grown exponentially and with it religious extremism. Far from disappearing, religion has come to take a central place in our lives, socially, politically and personally, and the need to understand its developments has never been greater.

For many North Americans the increased presence of Muslims in contemporary society has been a disconcerting and unfamiliarizing experience. Influenced by long established stereotypes and the fear of terrorist attacks, they have understood Islam as a religion of backwards, violent and repressive people; people that many of them had never met or talked to. Published in 2008, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think is Gallup Press’s attempt to counteract and dispel these stereotypes and provide its readers with a better and more accurate understanding of the 1.3 billion people who call themselves Muslim.

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Who Speaks for Islam? represents the sum product of tens of thousands of interviews conducted in 132 countries across the world. As the single largest and most comprehensive study of the global Muslim community, the Ummah, this book offers a level of insight into Muslim popular opinion that no prior publication has achieved. However, with so much data, potentially 66,000-132,000 hours’ worth, how were the researchers to convey it to the average North American without overwhelming them? How would they make it relevant?

The answer was to bring in Dalia Mogahed and renowned Islamic scholar John Esposito and have them use their expertise to contextualize the data. Despite their imposing academic credentials, the style of writing they adopted was not that of a lecturer who beats “facts” into the heads of disinterested pupils, but of an equal who has similar questions about Islam as their audience. Consequently, each chapter starts by addressing a common stereotype about Muslims as if it were true, and then uses the data from the Gallup poll to show the problems with holding these uninformed and preconceived notions. The three primary stereotypes addressed are:

  • Does Islam allow for democracy or does it lead to theocracy?
  • Does Islam oppress women?
  • Does Islam promote terrorism?

As the researchers discovered (to their surprise in some cases) the majority of the Muslims surveyed wanted democracy, favoured equal rights for women, and did not condone terrorism. These findings will hopefully go a long way towards promoting a tolerant and nuanced understanding of Islam among readers new to the subject. There are, however, some caveats to this information that readers should keep in mind as they read through Who Speaks for Islam?

Esposito, Mogahed, and Gallup Press have gone to great lengths to make their work accessible to newcomers; foreign and abstract words are kept to a minimum, a chapter is devoted to explaining the historical background of Islam, and citations and charts are kept to a minimum. In short, the book’s intended audience is a casual one and as such is not expressly meant for academics already familiar with contemporary and historical Islam. For example, the discussion of methodology and much of the raw data that would be useful to academics hoping to incorporate Gallup’s findings into their own work has been removed for the sake of brevity and readability. Without this data the reader is left with little more than the conclusions of the authors and is therefore less able to come to their own. The frequent use of the overly broad descriptor “Many Muslims” is a perfect example of this minimalist approach to writing and should cause the reader to ask themselves, “Which ones do they mean?” Consequently, the reader would be well advised to remember that the conclusions presented to them have been generalized and may not hold for all regions and cultures in which Muslims might live.

A further caveat with regards to accepting the arguments in Who Speaks for Islam? at face value is its forthright support of “Moderate” and pro-reform Muslims. This bias, which is neither unusual or incorrect, has resulted in the authors presenting the global Muslim community as being divided into two categories: a “Moderate Muslim majority” and an “Extremist minority.” The use of such black and white terminology is unfortunate as it situates Muslims that support democracy, women’s rights, and reform in the Western sense as the moral majority and marginalizes those who stand outside of it. Although the authors do introduce shades of gray by discussing differences of opinion within the Muslim community, the language used to describe their actions and beliefs more often than not tends to be singular rather than plural (i.e. “Many Muslims” vs. “Some Muslims” or “African Muslims” etc.). As a result, many of the internal differences between Muslims are left unacknowledged and the authors’ interpretation of a “Moderate” Islam is superimposed onto the data provided by the Gallup poll.

For those unfamiliar with Islam, or have perhaps viewed it negatively in the past, Who Speaks for Islam? is an excellent introduction to the subject. Bearing in mind the rather general nature in which the Gallop Poll’s data is presented by Esposito and Mogahed, and their interpretive bias, it is a well written and accessible book that should hopefully spark the reader’s interest to learn more.


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6 Responses to Book Reviews: Who Speaks For Islam?

  1. Pingback: Behind The Scenes! | The La(z)y Intellectual

  2. Joan Mowle says:

    But as you it really a book for those who want to delve deeply into the subject?
    and would it appeal more to the non islamic such as myself or someone who is???

  3. alice says:

    I’ve read this book as, being a Muslim (not sure if your mom told you that new part of my life!) I was interested in what it had to say. In some regards, it is correct in that the majority of us are not in the extremist category and really would like them to go away because they give us all a bad name (for example, as Sheikh Yusef Estes said, suicide is expressly forbidden as a major sin, so therefore the term “suicide bomber” explains exactly what Islam says about that behaviour.) But yet, what I have found is that the biggest issue facing mainstream, want to be integrated while maintaining our faith, is western media and stereotypes. I think I’ve written a blog or two (or three or four) on that myself. Then there are those of us that are seen as Muslim by the western community and western by the Muslim community. What I did appreciate about this book is that the name “Tarek Fateh” appeared NO WHERE in it. In Canada, he is Islam’s worst “inside enemy”. I did appreciate that (I think it was this book, I’ve misplaced my Kindle and that’s where this book is!) this book also dispelled the commonly held myth that the majority of Muslims are Arab, when in fact the vast majority are SE Asian, specifically Indonesian!

    Joan – I found this book to be something that would appeal to the non-Muslim such as yourself who is truly interested in learning about the differences and dispelling some stereotypes, but also for those that are more academically inclined as well.

    Keep up the good work, Darius!

    • Thank you for contributing your thoughts Alice. In reply, I would like to clarify my point about the book’s support of “Moderate” Islam vs. “Extremist” Islam. There are many interpretations of Islam and, more often than not, they disagree on how important issues should be addressed and handled. By calling one particular interpretation “Moderate,” the authors have asserted that all interpretations with similar values and ideas are correct and those who do not share them are incorrect (“Immoderate”). But this label ignores context: not all cultures or regions share the same set of values and ideas. What may be considered “Moderate” in one country may be considered “Immoderate” in another. However, so long as they are based on a solid understanding of the Qur’an and Hadiths, no interpretation can be more Islamically valid than another.

      I would have preferred the authors to have removed the value judgements from their analysis and simply presented their subjects as individual Muslims with particular ideas. There is no such thing as good or bad Islam, only Muslim with good or bad ideas. In short, by continuing to associate the “Moderateness” or “Immoderateness” of an individual with their identity as a Muslim, we risk continuing the problem perpetuated by stereotypes of associating the actions of a person with the entirety of a group.

      Although I agree with you that stereotypes and the media are problematic for many Muslims, maintaining the divide between good and bad Muslims only means that the actions of individuals will continue to be associated with those of others. If we eliminate this dichotomy, and focus on the individuality of a terrorist, I would hope that their Muslimness would no longer play a part and would therefore no longer affect non-terrorist Muslims.

      I also agree that converts to Islam often have a difficult time navigating between their former and new communities.Unfortunately, although you are correct about Indonesia being the largest Muslim nation (followed by Pakistan and India), I don’t believe it is mentioned in this book. In fact, one of the issues I had with the book is that many of the interviews and examples that it used are from Middle Eastern Muslims and not South East Asians.

      Thank you for your feedback, and its always a pleasure to read your blog.

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