Following Sept. 11, Gallup opinion pollsters fanned across Asia, Africa and Europe to interview Muslims about relations with the West, gender, religion, terrorism and more. Their mission, spanning six years and 35 countries, sought to answer one question: What do the world's 1 billion Muslims really think?
"The fact that we even have to ask that question is because of the damaging failure to communicate between the majority in the West and the majority of Muslims," said Madeleine Albright, Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy and former secretary of state.
Albright spoke at the world premiere of the documentary "Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think" in Gaston Hall on June 3. The documentary screening and lecture, sponsored by Unity Productions Foundation and Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU), explores results from the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World in the hopes of creating dialogue between the world's Muslim population and the United States.
University professor John Esposito, director of the CMCU, appears in the documentary.
He said the West should learn from the Gallup poll's results. "We don't have to act on what talking heads tell us (about Muslims)," he said in the film. "We can act on the hard data. We have the data, now we should let it speak for itself."
The film premiered the evening before President Obama's address in Cairo, Egypt, on U.S.-Muslim relations. Obama called for a new beginning in the U.S.-Muslim relationship and urged the end to "this cycle of suspicion and discord."
"On the eve of President Obama's speech from Cairo, the idea behind tonight's premiere is crucial," said Alex Kronemer, co-founder of Unity Productions Foundation and executive producer of the documentary. "It is simply this: in order to effectively engage the Muslim world, we have to understand what the Muslim world really wants."
U.S.-Muslim relations are too often marked by misunderstanding and fear, Albright said.
"The message in tonight's film is that we should be guided by facts, not fear," she said. "That is a simple message with logic on its side, but the difficulty is that human nature and logic have a complicated relationship. ... The main difficulty has been our tendency as Americans to equate the different with the dangerous."
The film depicts a disconnect between the United States and the world's Muslims. Gallup found that in 2002, 54 percent of Americans polled said they knew little or nothing about Muslims. In 2007 – long after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began and six years after Sept. 11 – that number rose to 57 percent.
The Gallup poll highlighted misconceptions of Muslims, such how they feel about gender equity. A majority of Muslim men in most countries agreed, for instance, that women should be able to hold jobs. Support stood at 81 percent in Indonesia, 73 percent in Iran and 62 percent in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, 58 percent of Saudi Muslim men said women should have the right to vote, which is currently not allowed.
Poll results highlight differences by country, reinforcing the idea that a common religion does not mean people have identical thoughts and beliefs, film producers said. For instance, 91 percent of women and 89 percent of men in Lebanon believe women should be able to drive a car alone. But in Pakistan, only 43 percent of women and 54 percent of men supported that.
The poll also showed that relations between Muslims and the United States remain more strained than between Muslims and the greater West. Sixty-seven percent of Kuwaiti Muslims, for instance, reported negative feelings about America, where only 3 percent said the same of Canada. Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said the world's Muslims have a worse opinion of the United States because of policies, not a general disregard for the West.
Esposito said both Americans and Muslims must make efforts toward dispelling myths about the other, and noted that the president made this clear in his Cairo speech.
"Barack Obama was equally direct and candid with his Muslim audience, speaking out against crude stereotyping of America as a self-interested empire … He balanced critique and prescription with respect and the need for partnership, not unilateral action, in building a new way forward," Esposito said.
John Voll, professor of Islamic history and associate director of CMCU, said the documentary shows a new way forward is possible.
" 'What a Billion Muslims Really Think' should encourage everyone to admit that real dialogue is truly possible between the Muslims of the world and the West, between Muslims and Christians and between whoever else we agree should be dialoguing," Voll said.
"Inside Islam" is the seventh film by the production company, whose mission is to increase understanding among the world's religious and cultural groups. The film's premiere at Georgetown is the first step in what Unity Productions Foundation leaders hope will become a series of conversations on U.S.-Muslim relations. Producers plan to screen the film at other universities, on Capitol Hill and at think tanks before its television premiere this fall.