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Attitudes toward sex, not democracy, divide the West and Islam

The attitudes and values dividing the West and the Muslim world have more to do with eros than with demos, according to new data from the World Values Survey, conducted by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and reported in the current issue of Foreign Policy.

Analyzing cumulative results from the 1995-1996 and 2000-2002 surveys of more than 150,000 people in 70 countries, ISR political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directs the World Values Survey, and Harvard University researcher Pippa Norris, find that Muslims and their Western counterparts want democracy, yet are worlds apart when it comes to a range of attitudes about sexual liberalization and gender equality.

For example, 53 percent of those surveyed in Western nations express some degree of tolerance for homosexuality, compared to just 12 percent of those surveyed in Islamic societies. While 82 percent of those in the West support gender equality, 60 percent are tolerant toward divorce and 48 percent express tolerance for abortion, the corresponding levels in the Muslim world are 55, 35 and 25 percent, respectively.

In reference to key political issues, however, the attitudes and values of the two societies are virtually identical. For example, 68 percent in both the West and Islamic nations strongly disagree that democracies are indecisive and have trouble keeping order, and 61 percent in both societies strongly disagree that it's best for a country to have a powerful leader who decides what to do without bothering about elections and government procedures. Fully 86 percent of those surveyed in the West, and 87 percent of those in Muslim nations, strongly agree that democracy may have problems but it's better than any other form of government.

In their new book, "Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change," by Oxford University Press, Inglehart and Norris provide a more extensive analysis of the causes and political consequences of changing global attitudes toward gender roles, and social issues involving sexual and reproductive behavior, such as abortion, prostitution, homosexuality and divorce. They compare data from four waves of the World Values Surveys conducted between 1981 and 2002 in both developing and developed nations around the world, including Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

Overall, their analysis shows that Finland, Sweden, W. Germany, Canada and Norway are at the top of the international gender equality scale, while Morocco, Egypt, Bangladesh and Jordan are at the bottom. "An Islamic religious heritage is one of the most powerful barriers to the rising tide of gender equality," Inglehart and Norris note.

The research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

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