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Levels of Negativity: How Muslim and Western Publics See One Another

By Richard Wike and Brian J. Grim


News headlines seem to bombard us daily with more examples of conflict between the Muslim world and the West, whether it is 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 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, although there is generally more antagonism in Muslim countries toward the West than vice versa. Here we investigate how these tensions vary across countries, using data from the 2006 survey.


The 2006 poll included a number of questions designed to measure how people from different cultural and religious backgrounds view one another. It asked non-Muslims in eight countries whether they associated a series of positive and negative characteristics with Muslims, and it asked Muslims in ten countries the same set of questions about Westerners. 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 ten 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.

In Britain, France, Germany, India, Nigeria, Russia, Spain, and the United States, non-Muslim respondents were read lists of positive and negative traits and, for each one, were asked whether they associated it with Muslims. In Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Spain, and Turkey, Muslim respondents were read the same lists and asked whether each trait applied to people in Western countries such as the United States and European nations. The question stem for the battery of characteristics read as follows:

Which of these characteristics do you associate with [Muslims/people in Western countries such as the United States and Europe]? The first is… Do you associate this with [Muslims/people in Western countries], or not?

The positive qualities from the survey included in our analysis were “generous” and “honest,” while the negative characteristics were “arrogant,” “greedy,” “immoral,” “selfish,” and “violent.” The results showed that many non-Muslims associated negative traits with Muslims (see Figure 1). Majorities of survey respondents in Nigeria, India, Spain, Russia, and Germany saw Muslims as violent. Large numbers, including majorities in India, Nigeria, and Russia, also considered Muslims arrogant. Many also associated selfishness with Muslims, although India was the only country where a majority did so. Non-Muslims were less likely to rate Muslims as greedy or immoral—in France, for instance, only 10 percent said Muslims were greedy, and just 18 percent labeled them as immoral.


Graph negative opinions toward Muslims


Neither of the two positive traits included in our analysis was consistently associated with Muslims (see Figure 2). Still, many did characterize Muslims as honest and generous. Roughly two in three (64 percent) of French, 56 percent of British, and 52 percent of German respondents considered Muslims honest, and majorities in France (63 percent) and Nigeria (55 percent) saw them as generous.


Graph positive opinions toward Muslims


Pages 1, 2, 3, 4, Readings


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