Survey says … al Qaeda?

Pew Research Center published the results of a recent Global Attitudes Project survey of Muslims. Folks were asked questions about Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, democracy, the role of Islam in government, and other related topics. You can read the whole report here.

I was glad to see the report get some coverage. Here’s a bit from CNN’s “Muslims offer mixed views on Hamas, Hezbollah, reject al Qaeda”:

The survey, conducted this spring in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, found that only in Nigeria did Muslim populations have anything approaching a favorable view of al Qaeda, with 49 percent expressing positive views and 34 percent holding an unfavorable opinion.

At least seven in 10 Muslims had unfavorable views of the group in Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, as did lesser majorities in Jordan and Indonesia, according to the study.

But views of Hamas and Hezbollah were more mixed. Both groups got favorable ratings from a majority of Jordanian Muslims, with 60 percent supporting Hamas and 55 percent holding favorable views of Hezbollah, Pew reported.

I always think it interesting how results from surveys such as these are reported. I mean, it’s true that there are some Muslim populations that reject al Qaeda. In this survey, only four percent of Turks and three percent of Lebanese reported favorable views of the group. And of the seven countries surveyed, Nigeria was the friendliest to al Qaeda with one of every two Muslims showing support. But in Jordan, it’s one in three Muslims. That’s still remarkably high, isn’t it? I’ll be totally honest — I want those percentages below where they are in Turkey and Lebanon. And about one of every four Muslims in Indonesia and one of every five Muslims in Egypt likes al Qaeda. Yes, I’m glad that majorities in those countries aren’t sending money to al Qaeda or what not, but still, I can’t quite interpret it as positive news. It’s almost like the media report it as if it were an election. Yes, if these were voting numbers, al Qaeda would be rejected. But al Qaeda doesn’t need a majority to be effective. And if it can get a solid, double-digit minority — as it has in two-thirds of the countries asked about it — I’m not sure “rejected” conveys the right tone.

Think of it this way, this survey about al Qaeda was done in just six countries with large Muslim populations. And it found over 150 million Muslims who like al Qaeda.

The Pew report suggested the survey showed positive news about public opinion in the Muslim world and most media outlets ran with that view. So I was also interested in how the Los Angeles Times went beyond the press release to read the actual report. They ended up using an altogether different approach:

A majority of Muslims around the world welcome a significant role for Islam in their countries’ political life, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, but have mixed feelings toward militant religious groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to the survey, majorities in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Nigeria would favor changing the current laws to allow stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion. About 85% of Pakistani Muslims said they would support a law segregating men and women in the workplace.

Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and Jordan were among the most enthusiastic, with more than three-quarters of Muslims polled in those countries reporting positive views of Islam’s influence in politics: either that Islam had a large role in politics, and that was a good thing, or that it played a small role, and that was bad.

Both the CNN report and Los Angeles Times report are good and helpful. Still, I think they serve to show how different outlets can use the same report, lead with different survey responses, and end up conveying very different stories.

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  • Tregonsee

    Substitute the Klan, Mafia, Inquisiton, or Joe McCarthy with similar “low” levels of support. Any level above a percent or so would be grounds for great concern.

  • MO

    In regards to Jordon you also have to factor in that there is a sizeable Palestinian community there.

  • Jeff

    Molly, I have thought about this a lot for a number of months now, actually, and I think your reaction to the numbers is right. We are constantly told that “friends of al Qaeda” are a tiny percentage of Muslims. But if Muslims number 1 billion worldwide (as we are also often told), then 1000th of 1 percent equals 10,000 such insiders. Tiny percentage–big number. It took just 19 to bring down the WTC, hit the Pentagon, and aim for one other target. Like Tregonsee noted above, there is no number greater than zero that is small enough in the case of terrorist groups.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I do basically agree with you on this story and am also glad that the survey got coverage. I especially agree with you about how the same event can be reported with such a different perspective.

    But I do have a major reservation about the numbers. We need to add the perspective about how many in different places are ignorant or disbelieve truth out of hatred. Given the large numbers of Americans who believe that President Obama is a Muslim and not an American citizen, I’m sure that a lot of the support for the terrorists is also due to ignorance. I really wonder how many Muslims know what the terrorists really stand for?

    The survey does also point out that many Muslims have a very traditional view of punishment for crimes. That difference with American mores must also be noted.

    I also have an addendum that underlines that numbers are not the only story but that Saudi funding is a critical part of the terrorist enterprise. Some of us suspected this but the Wikileaks disclosures documented. Money counts and this illustrates that westerners are indirectly funding terrorists by our reliance on Saudi oil.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    More important than the results of a poll TODAY is to get some sense of what direction those Islamic populations are going.
    Turkey had been a very secularized country. But news stories seem to indicate radical Islam is growing there by leaps and bounds. And the lives of Christians there have become not much safer than in some other Moslem counntries. (A nun and a priest have been muredered there over the past few years).
    I didn’t see any mention of making any comparison with the result of past polls–which would give the latest polls far more meaning.

  • Nathan Rein

    Jeff (comment no. 3) makes an important point. When I was travelling in Jordan a few years ago, I didn’t meet anyone who approved of attacks on civilians. However, I also didn’t meet anyone who believed that a couple of dozen amateur guerrillas living in caves in Afghanistan could possibly have pulled off 9-11. Their opinion of al-Qaeda was partially based on the conviction that most of the crimes attributed to the organization were probably more likely the result of U.S. or Israeli conspiracies. This isn’t any less disturbing, of course. It’s also totally unscientific (I’m talking about a non-randomly-selected sample of maybe twenty people I talked to about this subject over a few weeks). But I mention it because does suggest the limitations of a simple poll question that asks people about positive or negative sentiments. They may, in effect, be answering a question that’s different from the one you’re asking.

  • Hector

    Re: Substitute the Klan, Mafia, Inquisiton, or Joe McCarthy with similar “low” levels of support. Any level above a percent or so would be grounds for great concern.

    Are you kidding? The Klan, back in the 1920s when they were murdering black people right and left, had a LOT of support among so-called respectable White Anglo-Saxon middle class. Far more, I’d suspect, then the percentage of Muslims who support Al Qaeda today.

    As for the Mafia, American popular culture has a tendency to treat them as glamorous outlaws, rather than as the sociopaths that they are. Hell, the United States Government even teamed up with the Sicilian Mafia in 1948 to keep Communist voters away from the polls in Sicily. I doubt that Al Jazeera would air a TV show that portrayed Al Qaeda in as sanitised a light as ‘The Godfather’ or ‘The Sopranos’ romanticises organised crime.

  • Jerry

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan did not read the story to which Mollie linked. That comparison over time is in that story in some key indicators.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I have many questions about the method of the survey. How truthful are people going to be in these surveys, especially in a country like Egypt where expression of the wrong views can land someone in jail?

    Why did the survey not interview Muslims in the US and various European countries about these institutions?

    Also, what does it mean that in Nigeria, which is the only country of these that might be other than majority Muslim, and if it is majority Muslim is only such by the narrowest of margins, is also the country that has the widest support of Al-Queda?

    Beyond this, does this mean that Muslims think it is acceptable to massively murder Jews and not Christians, or is it that the media portrays the actions of al-Queda and Hamas, which in many ways are virtually the same, so differently, that people assume they are more different than they really are?

    What language were these interviews conducted in? Were the interviewers Muslims, and if they were, was that obvious?

    Before we can draw any real conclusions from these studies, we should do a study to determine what the effect of the perceived religion and national background of the survey conductor is on the results.

    Until you do that, you are just learning what the people want those who ask them to think that they think. Until we do a study where the interviers are treated as real people who have some probable effect on the results, we will have a study that may not tell us anything at all.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Starting to read the fuller data, I want a few other questions answered. What percentage of Egypt’s population is Shi’ite, and what percentage of study participants in Egypt where Shi’ite. My general assumption is virtually all the Muslims in Egypt are Sunni, but one should not assume in studies.

    In the case of Turkey, what percentage of participants in the survey were Aluites? In Pakistan, did they include Amadiyyah in the survey? If they did, why would an Amadiyyah feel safe of not being thrown in jail for the “blasphemeny” of “falsely” claiming to be a Muslims if they participated in the survey? How did the survey participants distribution compare to the population distribution of Pakistan? Were many of the participants from the “Tribal Areas” which is the bastion of power if not the birth-place of the Taliban?

    What are the male/female respondent rates? Do males and females have different views of these organizations? Were female participants interviewed by male or female interviewers?

  • John Pack Lambert

    When did Turkey become “outside the Middle East”? Parts of Turkey are closer to Hizbollah’s base of operation than any of Egypt, and the distance from Cairo to Hizbollah’s base of operations is probably about the same as the distance from Ankara to the same location. The whole wording of that section seems odd.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think direct questions about terririst tacts and other potential actions of these groups would be more revealing than asking people what their overall opinion of the groups are.

    We could then compare views on policy with reactions to the policy. I would find it much more informative to see what these people thought were legitimate military tacticts than to learn their claimed views of various terrorists groups.

    I also think more intensive questioning about things like views of how those who convert to other religions should be treated would be helpful. Although I have a suspicion it is the type of helpful knowledge many on the left want to keep supressed.