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Iraq and the West: How Wide Is the Morality Gap?

Iraq and the West: How Wide Is the Morality Gap?

by Richard Burkholder

The tumultuous events of the past decade have repeatedly strained the relationship Iraqis have with the West. Is a perceived "morality gap" between their own society's values and those of the West also a point of stress in that relationship?

Gallup's Poll of Baghdad asked a representative sample of adults to describe -- in their own words -- what, if anything, they most resent about the West. In an open-ended question such as this, respondents could have chosen to refer to political or historical grievances -- such as colonialism -- or to such material issues as economic deprivations or perceived exploitation. Interestingly, respondents were far more likely to point to issues that relate directly to moral and religious values.

More than a third (36%) of Baghdad residents said they believe Western culture has undermined moral standards by spreading sexually indecent influences ("pornography" and "fornication") and corruption. Roughly one in five (19%) expressed the belief that Western traditions and cultural norms are "totally different from our Islamic ones," and nearly as many (17%) said they resent what they view as the West's excessive freedom and liberality.

Roughly one in eight Baghdadis (12%) cited what they believe to be a general Western antagonism to, and lack of respect for, the religion of Islam. This response, which refers specifically to perceived disrespect for Baghdadis' predominant faith, was given more frequently than was the assertion that the West treats Arabs with arrogance and disrespect (6%).

An additional 4% of respondents referred to other religious factors, saying they resent the West's lack of religiosity, or the fact that most Westerners are either non-Muslims or "unbelievers."

Smaller proportions of Baghdad residents pointed to undesirable social influences, such as drug use (6%), the breakdown of family structure (5%), and production of immoral movies and music (5%). Just 5% mentioned an explicitly political grievance: Western alliance with Israel.

In Their Own Words

Actual verbatim responses provide further insight into Baghdadis' views about Western culture:

  • "Their religion is totally different from ours and they hate Islam very much." -- woman, late 30s, basic education
  • "Immorality abounds among them -- like drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity." -- woman, early 40s, secondary school education
  • "They have an educated and advanced society, but it's morally disintegrated." -- woman, late 20s, basic education
  • "We heard from people who traveled there that they have great deal of moral corruption." -- woman over age 60, basic education
  • "Their ethical values, as seen in their pornographic films, and family disintegration" -- woman, late 50s, university-educated
  • "They disseminate corruption and do not adhere to religious values." -- man, early 50s, intermediate education
  • "Their disrespect of Islamic values, excessive corruption, and production of immoral films" -- woman, late 30s, secondary education
  • "All their behavior is bad -- not accepted by our religion. They dress indecently, and walk in the streets wearing obnoxious clothing." -- man, early 30s, secondary education
  • "More modern than they ought to be with respect to clothing and drinking." -- woman, early 30s, secondary education

Perceived Negative Moral Influences of West Similar to Those in Other Predominantly Islamic Societies

Baghdad residents' criticism of possible negative moral influences from the West echo many of the sentiments expressed in the 2002 Gallup Poll of the Islamic World. The survey of nine predominantly Islamic countries* found that residents of these countries share similar perceptions of Western culture -- that Westerners are immoral and have weak family structures, and show declining social courtesy and a loss of respect for their elders. Residents also cited perceptions that those in the West have negative attitudes toward Muslims/Arabs, that they have a general lack of respect or understanding of the Islamic faith, and that the West has high rates of substance abuse, crime, and corruption.

*Question about resentment toward West not asked in Saudi Arabia.

View Methodology

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