Clash of civilisation in full flow?

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
January 20, 2013, 12:00 PM UTC

Dr Joel Faulkner Rogers discusses Anglo-American attitudes to the YouTube crisis

Among the more powerful ‘memes’ of 2012 was an international resurgence for the idea of a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ between Islam and the West, triggered this time by a wave of Muslim protests against a controversial American film depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The film was initially shown to a cinema of no more than ten people in June, 2012. It only achieved international notoriety after an Arabic version of the trailer was uploaded on the video site YouTube in September 2012 (even though an English language version already existed) and promoted by both known anti-Muslim campaigners and certain Islamists. As a result, violence ensued in parts of the Muslim world, most notably in Libya.

Alongside the subsequent civil unrest, the incident reignited international debate about religious respect versus free speech, about the rivalry of God and man as law-givers, and whether liberal Western societies should permit the publication of images depicting the Prophet Mohammad, an act deemed highly offensive by many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. This was exemplified when the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation – the international governmental body of Islamic nations – tried but failed to introduce a resolution on blasphemy at the United Nations.

Newly released polling research by YouGov, conducted in partnership with the Royal United Services Institute, highlights several key trends in British and American attitudes surrounding the episode. The data suggests that episodes such as these harden attitudes towards the Muslim world and feed into the ‘Clash of Civilisation’ narrative.

US/British Majorities Perceive Significant Muslim support for the YouTube Violence

YouGov surveyed nationally representative samples of 1739 British adults and 1000 American adults in late September, 2012.

According to results, over 60% of the population in both countries think there was significant support in the Muslim world for the violence directed against the United States in the YouTube demonstrations. This result is notable given that violence occurred only in a handful of countries though it is worth noting that protests were more widespread. It is further striking as in Libya – the country at the centre of the violence – demonstrators also came out specifically to condemn the violence and specifically the murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens (notwithstanding the ambiguity of association with the protests that later emerged).

Respondents were asked:

‘There have been violent demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries against the United States in recent days, protesting a short anti-Muslim film, made in America and shown on YouTube. If you had to guess, roughly what proportion of people in the Muslim world support the violence directed against the US?’.

34% of British respondents overall said ‘perhaps half’ or ‘most’ in the Muslim world supported the violence, while a further 31% said a ‘significant minority’ supported it, compared with 24% saying it was supported only by a small minority, and 10% saying ‘Don’t know’.

A similar 37% of American respondents overall said that ‘perhaps half’ of or ‘most’ Muslims supported the violence, with a further 27% saying a ‘significant minority’ supported it, compared with 26% who believed it was supported only by a small minority, and 9% saying ‘Don’t know’.

In both countries, supporters on the political right were notably more likely to believe in the wider support of Muslims towards the violence.

In the United States, 59% of Republican supporters said that either most or half of Muslims supported the violence, compared with just 18% of Democrats who said the same.

In Britain, 41% of Conservatives said most or half of Muslims supported the violence, compared with 34% of Labour supporters and 23% of Liberal Democrat supporters.

Many Britons/Americans fear an Islamo-Western clash – more so Conservatives

According to results, both British and American public opinion also reflects significant belief in the idea of a fundamental clash between Islam and the West.

Results show a similar tendency among Conservatives towards a stronger belief in generalised cultural tension between Islam and Western society, with notably higher numbers of respondents who perceive a fundamental conflict of values.

Respondents in both cases were asked:

‘In the long term, do you think it is possible for the West and the Muslim world to coexist in peace, with each respecting the other’s values and traditions, or is there a fundamental conflict between the two sets of values and one or other must eventually prevail?’.

British attitudes overall were broadly divided: 43% of British respondents chose the statement: ‘There is a fundamental conflict’, while a marginally smaller 41% answered: ‘It is possible for the West and the Muslim world to co-exist in peace’, and 16% selected ‘Don’t know’.

Conservative voters are more likely to believe in this kind of Clash, with nearly half (49%) supporting the idea of a ‘fundamental conflict’, compared with 39% of Labour supporters and 26% of Liberal Democrat supporters saying the same.

American public opinion is marginally less likely overall to believe in the Clash, with 39% of all US respondents believing in ‘a fundamental conflict’, versus 47% saying it’s possible to co-exist’, and 14% saying ‘Don’t know’.

However, there is much greater variance between American political camps.

According to results, 64% of US Republican Party supporters believe in ‘a fundamental conflict’, compared with only 18% of Democrat Party voters. Support for the idea of peaceful co-existence is almost precisely reversed: 23% of Republicans say ‘It is possible for the West and Muslim world to co-exist in peace’, compared with 68% of Democrats who say the same.

These figures suggest a substantial challenge to Muslims keen on overcoming hostile attitudes towards their faith. They also provide a challenge to those conservative policymakers – on both sides of the Atlantic – keen on detoxifying their respective party images of being hostile to minorities.

Cooling off the Arab Spring?

The events of the Arab Spring in 2011 ushered in a consensus of optimism, especially amongst policymakers. The sense of reform and democratisation in the Muslim world was palpable. Indeed, following the overthrow of Qadhafi in Libya, the country voted in politicians who were not seen as Islamists, compared to their Egyptian and Tunisian neighbours. And yet, the YouTube episode and violence starting from Libya challenged that perception.

In the cross-country section of this research, the two nationally representative samples of British and American respondents were also asked about whether their respective governments should give financial support to those so-called ‘Arab spring’ countries now seeking to make the transition to democracy.

Respondents in both cases were asked:

‘Over the next few years, do you think (RESPONDENT’S COUNTRY’S) Government should or should not give financial aid to Muslim countries in the so-called “Arab Spring” that seek to make the transition to democracy?’

Only 17% of British respondents thought their government should give financial aid to ‘Arab Spring’ countries, while 69% said Britain should not.

American results show slightly less opposition to the idea of sending aid to those regional countries attempting transition: 20% said the United States should give financial aid to ‘Arab Spring’ countries, while a comparatively smaller 58% said the United States should not.

It is unclear whether this is due to other factors, such as general suspicion towards giving aid, or to unfolding events of 2012 (such as prolonged civil war in Syria, rise of political Islamists as a result of the Arab Spring). However, it is clear at least that neither British nor American publics show much support for a financial commitment to help foster democracy in the Middle East.

A Majority of Britons Support the Legal Right to Insult Religion

As part of the same study, YouGov surveyed a separate, nationally representative sample of 1710 British adults on attitudes to free speech and religious insult.

Respondents were asked:

‘Some people say the right to free speech should include doing and saying things that offend the religious views of others, such as producing visual images of the Prophet Mohammad, which many Muslims say should be forbidden. Other people say the right to free speech should NOT include doing and saying things that offend the religious views of others. Please say whether you think the following activities should or should not be legally allowed in Britain’.

According to results in this context, a majority of the British public believe the legal right to free speech includes the ability to do, say and publish things that offend religious orthodoxy, including saying or printing insults about the founder of a particular religion, saying the founder of a particular religion never existed, saying a particular religion is nonsense or that it threatens world peace, or producing visual images of the Prophet Mohammed.

In each case, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat respondents were marginally more likely to advocate the legal right to speak or print religious offence than Labour supporters – for example, 60% of Conservative supporters and 67% of Liberal Democrat supporters said that producing visual images of the Prophet Mohammed should be allowed, compared with 53% of Labour voters.

But Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed Divide British Opinion

While a majority of respondents seem to support legal rights to offend religious views in principle, it is clear that significantly fewer support exercising this right merely for its own sake.

British respondents are near evenly split over whether the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was right or wrong in responding to the Muslim protests by publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed naked in front of a film director.

The responses perhaps indicate why the British media, unlike their European counterparts, have not published such cartoons, either in the recent controversy or during the Danish cartoon crisis of 2006.

Respondents were asked:

‘In response to the Muslim protests about the YouTube film, a French magazine called ‘Charlie Hebdo’ published a cartoon showing the Prophet Mohammad naked in front of a film director. From what you know about the cartoon, which of the following statements best reflects your view?’

This time results showed a broader spread across the answer-options: 33% of respondents saidCharlie Hebdo was right to publish the cartoon as an act that defended free speech, while a marginally larger 35% said the French magazine was wrong to publish the cartoon as an act that caused unnecessary offence, and 32% answered ‘Don’t know/prefer not to say’.

Those intending to vote Conservative and Liberal Democrat were marginally more likely to support publication than those intending to vote Labour, with 42% and 37% respectively sayingCharlie Hebdo was right to publish, compared with 32% of Labour supporters.

These answers raise further questions about the balance of free speech and religious liberty in the UK. The results of this survey are published in a week when a British Airways employee won her right to wear the crucifix in the workplace. She won her case after arguing that followers of other faiths are allowed to display their religious symbols. Equally, these responses suggest that the debate on freedom of speech and religion will continue, particularly in relation to freedom of speech and the freedom to offend when it comes to other faiths and when it results in inciting hatred.

Overall, while these responses do not conclusively demonstrate a validation of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis as envisaged by Samuel Huntington, they do highlight the volatile landscape exploited by extremists on both sides. We see a downward spiral between these those demanding the right to offend and those who are easily provoked – each reinforcing stereotypes of each other.

See the YouGov-Cambridge cross-country survey results

See the YouGov-Cambridge British sample survey results