‘Islamic Extremism’ Alienates Most in Muslim World

Concerns about "Islamic extremism" and disapproval over violence motivated by it are growing in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, according to a major new survey that also found declining support for Osama bin Laden in most of the Islamic world, with the exception of Jordan and Pakistan.

The survey, released here Thursday by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (PGAP), found that large and growing majorities in predominantly Muslim countries – notably Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and Indonesia – believe that democracy can work well in their countries and that, Lebanon and Turkey excepted, the greater role of Islam in public life is a good thing.

Conducted before last week’s bombings in London, the survey found that majorities of the publics in North America and Europe, with the exception of Germany and the Netherlands, held favorable views of Muslims.

It found that concerns about Islamic extremism – both domestically and elsewhere in the world – were strongest in Russia, India, Spain, and Germany, although they were also intense in France and the Netherlands.

The survey, the subject of a 50-page report entitled "Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics," covered the results of polling this spring of some 17,000 respondents in 17 countries around the world, including the U.S.

PGAP is based in Washington and co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Danforth.

An initial report about attitudes toward the United States was released last month. It found that with the exception of Russia, Indonesia, and India, global opinion of the U.S. remained at very low levels – made worse by the reelection of President George W. Bush last November.

The latest release deals mainly with reaction to Islam and "Islamic extremism" both in the Muslim world and outside it. Predominantly Muslim countries surveyed included Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey. Non-Muslim countries included Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, and the U.S.

Although the survey found widespread concerns about Islamic extremism in all countries except Lebanon and Jordan, it also found that Muslim and non-Muslim publics have very different attitudes with regard to the impact of Islam on their countries.

While most respondents in predominantly Muslim countries voiced concerns that Islamic extremism can lead to violence, fewer personal freedoms, internal divisions, and retarded economic development, the balance of opinion was that Islam is playing a larger political role in their nations, a development that was welcomed by most. Turkey, where the public was divided about the question, was the clear exception.

In non-Muslim countries, on the other hand, fears of Islamic extremism were found to be closely associated with concerns that Muslims living there did not want to assimilate and were in fact gaining a stronger sense of Islamic identity – a development that was viewed especially negatively in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The survey also found a divide in the Islamic world on the meaning of "Islamic extremism" between those who defined it as the "violent removal of non-Muslim influences" and those who saw it as the imposition of strict sharia laws.

Concern about Islamic extremism, however defined, was strongest in Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, and among Christians in Lebanon, while the threat was seen as negligible in Jordan and among Lebanese Muslims.

Asked what causes Islamic extremism in their country, pluralities in Lebanon and Jordan cited "U.S. policies and influence," while similar pluralities in Morocco and Pakistan cited "poverty and the lack of jobs."

At the same time, the survey found that support for terrorism and other forms of violence has mostly declined in the Islamic world compared to 2002 when PGAP first posed the question.

The percentage of respondents who agreed that "violence against civilians is often or sometimes justified" fell from 73 percent to 38 percent among Muslim Lebanese over the three years, from 33 percent to 25 percent in Pakistan, and from 27 percent to 15 percent in Indonesia. It was static at around 14 percent in Turkey, although in Jordan, it rose from 43 percent to a majority of 57 percent.

As for bin Laden’s status, the survey said it had actually been enhanced between 2003 and 2005 in both Jordan, where 60 percent said they have "some" or "a lot" of confidence in the al-Qaeda chief as a world leader, up from 55 percent two years before, and Pakistan where support grew from 45 percent to 51 percent.

In the other three countries, however, bin Laden’s image has fallen, according to the survey, 23 percentage points in both Indonesia (from 58 percent to 35 percent) and Morocco (from 49 percent to 26 percent); while the percentage of those expressing confidence in him in Turkey and Lebanon fell to single digits.

The survey also found that public opinion in the West generally held more favorable views of Muslims than Muslims in the Islamic world held of Christians and particularly of Jews. The percentage of westerners who said they had a "very" or "somewhat" favorable opinion of Muslims varied from a low of 40 percent (Germany) to a high of 72 percent (Britain).

Fifty-eight percent of Jordanians and Indonesians said they had a favorable view of Christians, an opinion shared by only a third of Moroccans and slightly more than a fifth of Turks and Pakistanis. Lebanese, 91 percent of whom said they felt positively about Christians, were the exception.

While majorities – up to 85 percent (the Netherlands) of respondents – in North American and European countries said they had a "very" or "somewhat" favorable opinion of Jews, only 18 percent of Turks shared that view, and that was the highest percentage.

Thirteen percent of Indonesians, 8 percent of Moroccans, and 5 percent of Pakistanis agreed with that characterization, while in Jordan and Lebanon "dislike of Jews is universal," according to the report, which added that 99 percent of the publics in both countries said they had a "very unfavorable" view of Jews.

Similarly, asked which religion was the most violent, large majorities ranging from 61 percent (Canada) to 88 percent (the Netherlands) of respondents in non-Muslim countries named Islam, while similar majorities in Islamic countries named Judaism. The only exception was Turkey, where 46 percent of respondents cited Christianity, compared to 20 percent who named Judaism.

In India, about six in 10 respondents (61 percent) said they hold a favorable view of Christians, while among the Hindu majority in India, views of Muslims are split about evenly at about 43 percent. Jews fare worse, with only 28 percent of Indians voicing favorable opinions.

On the other hand, Chinese respondents rated Jews more favorably (28 percent) than both Christians (26 percent) and Muslims ( percent).

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.