Monday, December 20, 2010

Poll Reveals Frightening Popularity of Revolutionary Islamism

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By Barry Rubin

There’s a lot of interesting material in the Pew Foundation's latest poll of the Middle East, a survey that focuses on attitudes toward Islamism and revolutionary Islamist groups. The analysis that accompanies the poll, however, is not very good, so here is mine.

For example, in evaluating attitudes toward Hamas and Hizballah, Pew says that they receive “mixed ratings from Muslim publics [while] opinions of al-Qaida and its leader, Usama bin Ladin, are consistently negative….” The implication is that the poll shows that people in these countries are not radical. Actually, the poll shows the precise opposite.

To begin with, let's look at Jordan. There, 55 percent say they like Hizballah (against 43 percent negative) while 60 percent are favorable (compared to 34 percent negative) toward Hamas. Yet this is even more impressive than the figures indicate. Jordan is a staunchly Sunni country whose government opposes the ambitions of Iran and Syria, indeed it often identifies the threat as coming from Shia Muslims. Hizballah is a Shia group which also is an agent of Iran and Syria. For a majority to praise that organization—conscious of strong government disapproval—is phenomenal.

The figures for Hamas can be more easily explained by the Palestinian connection. Yet the difference between support for Hamas and for Hizballah in terms of public opinion isn’t that great. And liking Hamas also suggests that Jordan's people--of whom a majority are Palestinian--prefer Hamas over Fatah and the Palestinian Authority—Hamas's rival.

Why do people support Hamas and Hizballah? Obviously, one reason is that they fight Israel (a country with which Jordan is at peace, by the way) but sympathy for the revolutionary Islamist aspect of Hamas and Hizballah must be a huge factor here. Indeed, there is not necessarily any conflict between these two aspects. The Islamists are considered to be better fighters than the nationalists, while making war for the next generation is more attractive to those backing Hamas and Hizballah than is making peace (a strategy associated with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah). Finally, let’s not forget that both of these groups are very anti-Western and anti-American.

But now let’s look at al-Qaida. In Jordan, 34 percent are favorable toward that terrorist group while 62 percent are negative. That outcome, however, contrary to Pew’s spin on the numbers, is not at all encouraging. Remember that al-Qaida carried out the September 11 attacks. Moreover, it has conducted terrorist attacks in neighboring Iraq and, most important of all, it has murdered people within Jordan itself. The fact that one-third of Jordanians—whose country is generally considered the most pro-Western in the Arab world--like al-Qaida is chilling indeed. Then, too, this preference cannot be attributed to anti-Israel sentiment since the vast majority of al-Qaida's operations are intended to overthrow Arab, Muslim governments.

So one-third of Jordan’s people favor the most extremist terrorist group—despite the fact that it has murdered Jordanians and is hated by their government—and roughly half or more like revolutionary Islamist organization that are clients of their own country’s nominally biggest threats. What does that say about the hopes for moderation and stability?

Turning to Egypt, “only” 30 percent like Hizballah (66 percent don’t like) 49 percent are favorable toward Hamas (48 percent are negative); and 20 percent smile (72 percent frown) at al-Qaida. This is more encouraging than the figures in Jordan. But remember that not only is Egypt solidly Sunni but the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of Islamism in Egypt, don’t like Hizballah because it is a Shia group. The Egyptian government has accused Hizballah of trying to foment terrorism in Egypt. The Egyptian government also views Hamas as a threat.

Roughly speaking, one-fifth of Egyptians applaud the most extreme Islamist terrorist group, while around one-third back revolutionary Islamists abroad. This doesn’t tell us what proportion of Egyptians want an Islamist government at home, but it is an indicator.

And just remember that in two countries considered U.S. allies and receiving U.S. aid, one-third and one-fifth of the population, respectively, support the group that killed 3000 Americans on September 11. The Obama Administration's response is that this is the reason it has to follow certain policies: to win over those who are most antagonistic and to keep others from becoming more radical. The problem is that these policies don't achieve those goals. What determines these views are structural and communal issues within each country.

Here's an example of that point. In Lebanon, attitudes divide along sectarian lines. While 94 percent of Shia Muslims support Hizballah (only 5 percent are negative), 84 percent of Sunnis are unfavorable on Hizballah  (only 12 percent are positive) toward it. Christians are 87 percent negative on Hizballah (and only 10 percent positive). This shows why Hizballah cannot just take over Lebanon itself, but of course Lebanon is largely being taken over by Iranian-Syrian power plus their local collaborators, of which Hizballah is only one of the elements.

What are the Lebanese figures on al-Qaida? Only three percent positive and 94 percent negative! Why? Because the Christians and Sunnis don’t want that kind of regime, while the Shias, who tend to support Hizballah’s Islamism, knows that al-Qaida hates Shias. So Arabs and Muslims are quite capable of opposing terrorists if they think the terrorists are against their own interests. They support terrorists who they think are doing things they like. This shows the limit of Western ability to change these attitudes.

Finally, here’s a word on Turkey where public opinion is the opposite of that prevailing in Jordan. In Turkey, Only 5 percent like Hizballah (74 percent negative), just 9 percent like Hamas (67 percent unfavorable), and merely 4 percent are positive (74 percent are hostile) on al-Qaida. Yet the current Turkish Islamist regime is a big supporter of Hamas and Hizballah. Clearly, supporting revolutionary Islamist groups—either through Islamism or the fact they are fighting Israel—is simply not popular in Turkey. Hamas and Hizballah don’t even do much better than al-Qaida.

So, Turkey's people are far more moderate than its government, while in Egypt and Jordan the people are more radical than theirs.

Let’s look at two other indicators of attitudes: Islamism versus “modernizers” and attitudes toward Islamic punishments. The first point of interest in terms of the great ideological battle is that large proportions of people in these countries deny that such a struggle even exists! Only 20 percent in Jordan, 31 percent in Egypt, 53 percent in Lebanon, and 52 percent in Turkey acknowledge that there is a struggle.

Why is this? One can’t definitively tell. I suspect that they may want to avoid taking sides since they live in countries where democracy doesn’t really prevail and authorities punish dissenters. Or perhaps they think that the Islamists are more capable of conducting modernization or that the current regime is sufficiently Islamic.

Nevertheless, those who said that such a struggle does exist (remember this is between only 20 percent in Jordan to 53 percent in Lebanon of those asked) took the following sides:

Jordan, 48-38 modernizers; Egypt, 59-27 Islamists; Lebanon, 84-15 modernists; Turkey, 74-11 modernists.

Other than the truly horrifying figures in Egypt—which one day might be cited to explain an Islamist revolution there—the numbers in Jordan are pretty scary as well. Almost 40 percent favor an Islamist regime and they know that doesn’t mean the current monarchy ruling Jordan.

How to explain the other two countries? In Lebanon, Hizballah is seen as a champion of the Shia community. It is supported for “ethnic” reasons more than because people want an Islamic Republic. Of course, Sunnis have to take into account that if Lebanon were to become an Islamic Republic it would be a Shia one. Lebanese like to think of themselves as modern, too.

As for Turkey, while the ruling AKP government has a hard core of supporters at roughly 30 percent, even most of these people don’t want an Islamist state, just a more Islamic-oriented one. That's why the AKP can only go so far in its Islamization or risk having the people turn against the regime.

Finally there is the attitude toward Islamic punishments. Again, the outcome in Egypt and Jordan is very revealing. In Egypt, 82 percent want stoning for those who commit adultery; 77 percent would like to see whippings and hands cut off for robbery; and 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.

I would expect that these attitudes don’t differ much from public opinion in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

The figures for Jordan are roughly the same: 70 percent (stoning), 58 percent (whipping/amputation), 86 percent (death for converts).

Again, the numbers for Lebanon and Turkey are quite different:

Lebanon, 23 percent (stoning); 13 percent (whipping/amputation), 6 percent (death for converts)

Turkey, 16 percent (stoning); 13 percent (whipping/amputation), 5 percent (death for converts)

Yet Turkey and Lebanon are ruled by regimes which are in the Islamist camp, that is, they view themselves as close to the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah alliance.

It is also important to keep in mind that this poll demonstrates that Muslims are not innately radical or pro-terrorist. Their attitudes, while certainly conditioned by Islam, depends on the same kind of historical, social, and political factors that determine attitudes in other countries. The problem is the specific interpretation of Islam in a given place and time.

But what this analysis also shows is that a future Islamist revolution in Egypt and Jordan is quite possible. So overwhelming is the support for this movement that there is nothing the West can do except ensure the current governments remain in power. As for Lebanon, there is a strong basis for resisting incorporation into the Iran-Syria empire, and in Turkey—where there are free elections—the current regime might well be overthrown.

Remember that Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab governments—notably Saudi Arabia—are so opposed to Iran not only because they hate that country’s non-Arab, Shia, radical Islamist standpoint, but also since they fear its growing power will set off revolutions within their own countries.

The bottom line is that in all four of these countries the radical Islamist, side is winning either in terms of public opinion or actual control. And the West is basically asleep in recognizing that threat.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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