May 31, 2013

Among Muslims, Internet Use Goes Hand-in-Hand With More Open Views Toward Western Culture

Around the world, Muslims who use the internet are much more likely than other Muslims to have a favorable opinion of Western movies, music and television and are somewhat more likely to see similarities between Islam and Christianity, according to an analysis of a recent Pew Research Center survey.

The survey of Muslims in 39 countries across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa finds that a median of 18% use the internet in their home, school or workplace. However, internet use varies widely across the countries surveyed, ranging from just 2% of Muslims in Afghanistan to a majority (59%) in Kosovo.

In the 25 countries where there are enough Muslims who use the internet to permit more detailed analysis, the survey finds that internet users tend to be younger and better educated than Muslims who are not online. They also include a somewhat higher proportion of men. But statistical analysis shows that internet use is strongly associated with Muslims’ attitudes toward Western popular culture even when factors such as age, education and gender are taken into account. Holding all else equal, Muslims who use the internet are much more inclined to like Western movies, music and television, and they are somewhat less inclined to say that Western entertainment is harming morality in their country.

The survey also finds that Muslims who use the internet are somewhat more likely than those who are not online to see commonalities between their own faith and Christianity. Statistical analysis shows that internet use is associated with a more open attitude toward Christianity even when controlling for demographic factors such as age, education, gender, level of religious observance and participation in interfaith activities.

When it comes to interpretations of their own faith, however, internet use does not appear to make much difference in Muslims’ views. Regardless of whether they use the internet or not, majorities of Muslims in most countries surveyed say that there is only one true way to interpret their faith and that Islam alone leads to eternal life in heaven. Statistical analysis finds little difference between internet users and non-users on these questions.

In nearly every country where analysis is possible, Muslim internet users are more likely to say they enjoy Western movies, music and television. Differences in opinion between Muslim internet users and those who do not use the internet are particularly wide in Kyrgyzstan (where internet users are 35 percentage points more likely to have a positive view of Western entertainment), Senegal (+32), Russia (+32), Indonesia (+31), Tajikistan (+31), Bosnia-Herzegovina (+30), Azerbaijan (+30) and Tunisia (+30).

 muslim-internet-1

After taking into account how internet users and non-users differ demographically, the attitudinal differences between internet and non-internet users are smaller but still significant. The chart below shows the independent relationship of four variables on attitudes toward Western media among the Muslims surveyed. When the other variables are held constant, age is the best single predictor of favorable attitudes toward Western popular culture, but internet use is a close second. All other things being equal, internet users are 17 percentage points more favorable toward Western entertainment than are Muslims who do not use the internet.

 muslim-internet-2

By contrast, religiously observant Muslims – those who say they pray several times a day – are 11 percentage points less likely to have favorable views of Western movies, music and television, after controlling for other factors.

In a follow-up question, Muslims were asked if they think Western movies, music and television hurt morality in their country. After controlling for demographic factors and religious observance, Muslims who use the internet are somewhat less likely than non-users to say that Western entertainment hurts morality.

Internet use also matters when it comes to attitudes toward Christianity. In roughly half of the countries analyzed, Muslims who use the internet are more likely than non-internet users to believe that Islam and Christianity have a lot in common. In Pakistan, for example, 35% of Muslims who use the internet say Islam and Christianity have a lot in common; among Pakistani Muslims who do not use the internet, 7% see such common ground.

 muslim-internet-3

In only one country – Morocco – is the relationship reversed, with internet users significantly less likely to see common ground between Islam and Christianity.

Further statistical analysis shows that both internet use and higher education have a modest but discernible impact on Muslims’ views of Christianity. When other variables are held constant, Muslims around the world who use the internet or have at least a secondary education are somewhat more likely to see commonalities between Islam and Christianity.

 muslim-internet-4

However, participating in interfaith meetings or classes with Christians is more strongly associated with Muslims’ attitudes toward Christianity.

The survey findings also show that internet use has relatively little influence on Muslims’ views of Islam’s teachings. Holding other factors constant, Muslims who use the internet are about as likely as those who do not use it to say that Islam is the only path to heaven (rather than saying that many faiths can lead to eternal salvation). Internet users and non-users also are about equally inclined to say that Islam has only one true interpretation.

Overall, the best predictor of Muslims’ views on these questions is religious observance. Holding everything else constant, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely to take exclusivist religious positions than are those who pray less often.

Appendix: About the Analysis

A logistic regression analysis was conducted on the full sample (total sample size for each dependent variable varies and is noted in each bar chart) to determine the independent impact of each factor on Muslims’ attitudes toward Western music, movies and television; Christianity; and the interpretation of Islamic teachings.

The analysis combines interviews across all countries surveyed, taking into account the individual effect of each country. Regression results are statistically significant at the .05 level. The dependent variables are:

Favorability of Western movies, music and television (1 = Like Western entertainment, 0 = Do not like Western entertainment/Don’t know/Refused).

Western entertainment’s impact on morality (1 = Western entertainment has hurt morality in the country, 0 = Western entertainment has not hurt morality in the country/Don’t know/Refused).

Common ground between Islam and other faiths (1 = Islam and Christianity/Buddhism have a lot in common, 0 = Islam and Christianity/Buddhism are very different/Don’t know/Refused).

Ways to interpret Islamic teachings (1 = One true way to interpret Islamic teachings, 0 = Many ways to interpret Islamic teachings/Don’t know/Refused).

Paths to eternal life (1 = Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven, 0 = Many faiths can lead to eternal life in heaven/Don’t know/Refused).

The independent variables are:

Age: Age 18-34 compared with age 35+

Education: Secondary education or higher compared with all others

Gender: Men compared with women

Religious observance: Those who pray several times a day compared with all others

Participation in interfaith meetings and classes: Those who participate in interfaith meetings and classes with Christians/Buddhists compared with all others

Internet use: Those who use the internet compared with all others

This analysis was written Neha Sahgal, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. It is based on statistical regression models presented by the author at the May 2013 annual conference of the World Association of Public Opinion Research.

Photo credit: © Alexandra Boulat/VII/Corbis