by Richard Wike, Pew Global Attitudes Project and Brian J. Grim, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

News headlines bombard us almost daily with examples of conflict between the Muslim world and the West, whether the war in Iraq, the search for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In Europe, long running tensions over whether to admit Turkey to the European Union and how to integrate and assimilate the continent’s growing Muslim minorities have been exacerbated in recent years by terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, rioting in France, and an international controversy over the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper portraying the prophet Muhammad.

In 2006, the Pew Global Attitudes Project set out to explore these tensions, examining how non-Muslims in the West and elsewhere view Muslims, as well as how Muslims think about people in western nations. The results reveal a disturbingly high level of negativity on both sides, with Muslims and non-Muslims associating a wide array of negative characteristics with one another. There is generally more antagonism in Muslim countries toward the West than vice versa, with Turkey, despite its longstanding ties with the West, now recording the most negative views of Westerners. European Muslim publics have the least negative views of Westerners, although there are significant variations among the four European Muslim publics surveyed. In particular, British Muslims have far more negative attitudes toward non-Muslims than do Muslims in France, Germany, or Spain.

The 2006 survey asked non-Muslims in eight countries whether they associate a series of positive and negative characteristics with Muslims, and it asked Muslims in 10 countries the same set of questions about Westerners.1 The eight non-Muslim publics included five “western” nations — Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States — as well as Russia, India, and Nigeria, which is roughly divided between Christians and Muslims. The 10 Muslim publics included the predominantly Muslim countries of Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey, as well as Muslim populations in Nigeria, Britain, France, Germany, and Spain.

The results show that many non-Muslims associate negative traits with Muslims. Majorities in Nigeria, India, Spain, Russia, and Germany see Muslims as violent. Large numbers, including majorities in India, Nigeria, and Russia, also consider Muslims arrogant. Many also associate selfishness with Muslims, although India is the only country where a majority does so. Non-Muslims are less likely to rate Muslims as greedy or immoral — in France for instance, only 10% say Muslims are greedy and just 18% label Muslims as immoral.

Neither of the two positive traits included in our analysis are consistently associated with Muslims. Still, many do characterize Muslims as honest and generous. Roughly two-in-three (64%) French, 56% of the British, and 52% of Germans consider Muslims honest, and majorities in France (63%) and Nigeria (55%) see Muslims as generous.

The data on Muslim attitudes towards Westerners also reveal a variety of negative views. In the five majority Muslim countries, as well as Nigeria, at least 40% of Muslims characterize Westerners as arrogant, violent, greedy, and immoral; meanwhile, relatively few say Westerners are generous or honest. Muslims in these countries are also especially likely to say Westerners are selfish — in all six countries, majorities suggest selfishness is common among people in Europe and the United States. Negative assessments of Westerners are fairly common across all six of these countries, although they are slightly more prevalent in Jordan and Indonesia. In contrast, European Muslims are consistently less likely to associate negative characteristics with Westerners and are more likely to label them as generous and honest.

To further compare the level of religious-cultural negativity among the various publics, we combined these seven characteristics into a single measure, which we call the religious-cultural negativity (RCN) index. First, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis, which showed that these seven characteristics relate to a common factor. Next, we calculated an RCN index score for each respondent based on the seven items. Scores on the index range from “0” (the most positive possible score) to “7” (the most negative).2 The mean index score for these publics ranges from a low of 2.1 in France to a high of 5.2 in Turkey.

Overall, the Muslim publics are more likely to associate negative traits with Westerners than vice versa. However, there is significant variation among Muslim populations. Turkey emerges as the country with the most negative views of Westerners, perhaps a surprising finding, given Turkey’s longstanding ties with many western countries and its membership in NATO. Fueled by frustration with the stalled negotiations over their country’s bid to join the EU and by deep opposition to American foreign policy, Turks have soured on both Europe and the U.S. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in April and May of 2007, found that the percentage of Turks with a favorable view of the U.S. had plummeted from 52% at the start of this decade to 9% in 2007. And the favorability rating for the EU dropped from 58% in 2004 to 27% in 2007.

Similar dynamics may be influencing opinions in other Muslim countries as well. Among Muslims in Indonesia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria, attitudes toward the U.S. and American foreign policy also tend to be quite negative, although the EU is held in somewhat higher regard. Still, many sense antagonism from Europe — at least half of the Muslims surveyed by Pew in 2006 in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and Nigeria said that most or many Europeans are hostile toward Muslims.

Indeed, perceptions of hostility or threat from the West may be leading to negative views of people in the West. The 2007 Pew survey found that solid majorities in all 11 predominantly Muslim countries included in the survey believed the United States could become a military threat to their country someday. And in a 2005 Pew survey, at least 46% in the five Muslim countries included in the study said they believe there are serious threats to Islam today (in Jordan, for example, the proportion saying so was a remarkably high 82%).

The findings among European Muslims generally support the notion that familiarity breeds favorability — the four European Muslim publics have the least negative views of Westerners. However, there are significant variations among these four Muslim publics, variations that are reflected throughout the Pew survey.

In particular, British Muslims stand apart from their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe. They receive the highest religious-cultural negativity score, indicating more negative attitudes. In fact, the score for British Muslims is closer to those for Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa than to France, Germany, or Spain. Muslims in Britain differ from those elsewhere in Europe on other measures as well. They are more inclined to see a conflict between Islam and modernity, more likely to primarily identify with their religion rather than their nationality, and more deeply concerned about the future of Muslims in their country — 80% say they are very or somewhat concerned. Of course, the British Muslim community has been a major focus of attention from writers, policymakers, and religious leaders since the July 2005 London bombings.

The French and Spanish Muslim populations, on the other hand, are the least negative Muslim publics on the survey. The findings regarding France may be surprising to some, especially in the U.S., where the dominant images of the French Muslim community probably stem from the autumn 2005 rioting by Muslim and other youths in banlieues of Paris and throughout the country. However, in their study of Islam in France, Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse argue that these riots were mainly about economics rather than religion or culture, and they suggest that in many ways the French model of integration and assimilation has been more successful than many presume.3 Similarly, after reviewing the Pew data, Jodie Allen concludes that “despite their problems — prime among them joblessness among youth generally, not just Muslim youth — the French need take no integrationist lessons from their European neighbors.”4

Among non-Muslim publics included in the study, Indians tend to be the most negative in their views of Muslims. Of course, at points over the last few years, India has experienced considerable tensions between its Hindu majority and Muslim minority, including clashes in 2002 that left as many as 2,000 dead in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Opinions are also relatively negative in Russia, which has also experienced tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, punctuated by attacks by Chechen separatists in Moscow and Beslan. Nigeria, which has the third most negative non-Muslim public on our index, has also suffered violence as a result of religious and ethnic conflict, resulting in as many as 15,000 deaths since 1999.5

On the whole, the five western nations associate the fewest negative characteristics with Muslims, although there are important differences among these countries. The Spanish have the most negative views, although that is part of a broader pattern in the 2006 survey results: favorability ratings for Muslims, Jews, and Arabs, as well as for Americans, were lower in Spain than in any other western country. In addition, the belief that a large number of Muslims support extremist groups is especially widespread in Spain, where terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people in March 2004. Roughly four-in-ten Spanish (41%) believe most or many Muslims in their country support extremists like al Qaeda.

Other research by the authors suggests that concerns about security threats posed by Islamic extremism are associated with a greater likelihood of assigning negative traits toward Muslims.6 Thus, just as negative attitudes held by Muslims about Westerners may be due in part to perceptions of threat, threat perceptions related to security concerns are important drivers of Western views toward Muslims.

The U.S. and Germany occupy something of a middle ground on the religious-cultural negativity index. In the former, views differ by age and party identification, with younger Americans holding somewhat less negative opinions, and independents voicing fewer negative opinions than Democrats or Republicans. Meanwhile, the British and French hold the least negative views, despite high profile tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in both countries over the last few years, including the 2005 bombings and subsequent concerns about “homegrown” terrorist cells in Britain, as well the 2005 riots in France. Interestingly, Britain and France emerge as the two countries with the least negative views despite the facts that they have very different models for dealing with their Muslim communities and that their Muslim populations have considerably different attitudes toward their host countries. As the Pew Forum’s David Masci has noted, Britain “aims not to change immigrants into Englishmen, but to get them to accept Britain’s core institutions and to learn English,” while France pursues “a vigorous policy of assimilation through its educational and other institutions.”7

In a global climate affected by the continuing concerns over terrorism and the war in Iraq, the ways that Muslims and non-Muslims perceive one another will be of ongoing interest. This is especially true in light of recent research indicating that social negativity itself can trigger an ongoing cycle of negativity and violence.8

For a longer version of this article, see “Levels of Negativity: How Muslim and Western Publics See One Another,” by Richard Wike and Brian J. Grim. Public Opinion Pros, October 2007.