Most people in Muslim and Western countries believe divisions between them are worsening and each side believes the other disrespects their culture, according to a poll released.
The Gallup poll, published in a report on Muslim-Western relations for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this week, reflects “an alarmingly low level of optimism regarding dialogue between Islam and the West”, WEF chairman Klaus Schwab said.
Negative perceptions were most prevalent in the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, partly because of violence in Iraq five years after the US-led invasion and because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report said.
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“In all but two countries surveyed…a majority believed the interaction between Western and Islamic communities is getting worse,” Schwab said of the poll, which questioned around 1,000 people in each of 21 countries.
While two thirds of people in Muslim countries said Muslims respect the West, almost the same number felt the West did not respect them.
Many Western respondents said they did not believe either side respected the other.
Incidents like cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in European newspapers had deepened distrust, with Muslims seeing them as an assault on their religion and Westerners alarmed by Muslim protests which they saw as a threat to free speech.
But the report found that majorities in all countries surveyed do not believe military conflict is inevitable, and it said the levels of mistrust varied from country to country.
Iranians, whose government is locked in a stand-off with the West over its nuclear programme, felt less disrespected by the West than Turks, who are seeking European Union membership.
In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, which the report said were often linked in Western media with religious fundamentalism and a possible clash of civilisations, only a minority believe the West and Muslim world are in conflict.
That view may be the result of more positive Muslim perceptions of countries such as France and Germany, seen in a better light than the United States, the report said.
Schwab said the report aimed to be the first in an annual series which would monitor the state of Muslim-West dialogue and focus efforts by governments, businesses, religious figures and the media to improve relations.
It found that Europeans, worried by immigration and a perceived Islamic threat to their culture, are alarmed at the prospect of greater interaction with the Muslim world.
By contrast, a majority of people in the United States, Israel and the Muslim world felt more interaction would help.
“European populations surveyed are much more likely to believe that greater interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds is a threat than a benefit,” the report said.
“…Although some might expect the United States, Israel and the Middle East to be more likely than Europe to be threatened by the ‘other’, the opposite is the case,” the report said.