June 22, 2006

The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other

III. Islam, Modernity and Terrorism

In most Western countries, the prevailing view among non-Muslims is that there is a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. But Muslims generally disagree – including Muslims who live in major European countries.

These contrasting views are particularly noteworthy in Germany and Spain. Fully 70% of the general public in Germany says there is a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society; 57% of German Muslims see no such conflict. In Spain, 58% of the general public says devout faith in Islam is incompatible with modern life; an even higher percentage of Spain’s Muslims (71%) disagree.

In France, however, comparably large majorities of the general public (74%) and French Muslims (72%) say there is no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. This is one of several indicators suggesting there has not been a backlash among the French to the rioting this past year by Muslim youths in the outskirts of Paris and elsewhere in the country.

In a similar vein, the Pew Global Attitudes survey asked people in five predominantly Muslim countries whether or not they believe there is a struggle between groups who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists.

The responses are mixed. In Turkey, 58% say there is a struggle between modernizers and Islamic fundamentalists, and nearly as many Indonesians (50%) agree. But solid majorities in Jordan and Egypt see no such struggle; in Pakistan, a relatively large number (50%) declined to offer an opinion.

Among those who believe there is a struggle, more people identify with the modernizers than the Islamic fundamentalists. In Turkey, for instance, 39% of the public identifies with the modernizers; just 9% identify with the Islamic fundamentalists.

The survey also asked people in non-Muslim countries whether or not they see a conflict between being a devout Christian and living in a modern society. Majorities in all countries – as well as majorities of Muslims in four European countries – say they see no conflict. However, a relatively large minority of Germans (37%) sees a conflict between being a devout Christian and living in a modern society.

Islamic Extremism Concerns

The rise of Islamic extremism is a concern to people in most Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike. These concerns are most pronounced in a handful of countries – including Germany, India and Great Britain – where 50% or more say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. In the U.S., 46% say they are very concerned, while another 33% say they are somewhat concerned over the global rise of Islamic extremism.

Concerns over Islamic extremism have remained fairly stable since last year in most of the countries for which trends are available. In Russia, however, there has been a sharp decline in intense concern over the past year; currently, 38% of Russians say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, down from 51% a year ago.

By and large, the Muslim publics surveyed also express fairly extensive concern over Islamic extremism. Turkey is an exception to this pattern – just 39% of Turks say they are very or somewhat concerned about this. Majorities of Muslims in four Western European countries also express at least some concern about Islamic extremism. But worries are most intense in Great Britain, where 52% of Muslims there say they are very concerned about the spread of Islamic extremism.

Amid this global sea of concern, China stands out as an island of relative calm. Just 3% of Chinese say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, while another 15% say they are somewhat concerned. This is by far the lowest level of concern among the 21 populations asked this question.

Bin Laden and al Qaeda

Osama bin Laden remains a pariah in the West, and support for the al Qaeda leader has eroded in several Muslim countries in recent years. In Jordan, confidence in bin Laden has plummeted since May 2005. A year ago, 25% of Jordanians said they had a lot of confidence in bin Laden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” while another 35% said they had some confidence. Today, almost no Jordanians (fewer than 1%) express a lot of confidence in bin Laden, and 24% say they have some confidence in him.

In Pakistan, confidence in bin Laden also has fallen, though not quite as dramatically. In May 2005, a majority of Pakistanis (51%) expressed at least some confidence in bin Laden; that number has declined to 38% in the current survey.

To be sure, bin Laden still has followers in the Muslim world. Fully 61% of Muslims in Nigeria express a lot of confidence (33%) or some confidence (28%) in bin Laden; that represents a significant increase from May 2003 (44%). Bin Laden’s standing in Pakistan has eroded, but more Pakistanis still express at least some confidence in bin Laden than say they have little or no confidence in him (by 38% to 30%). And a third of Indonesians continue to express at least some confidence in the al Qaeda leader.

Among European Muslims, only about one-in-twenty Muslims in Germany and France express even some confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs. But that figure rises to 14% among Muslims in Great Britain, and 16% of Spanish Muslims.

As for al Qaeda and groups like it, opinion is mixed in the Muslim world about how much support they attract. Large majorities in Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia say they draw just some or very few supporters. But a majority of Muslims in Nigeria (56%) say many or most Muslims there support al Qaeda and similar groups. About a third of Pakistanis (35%) say such extremists groups have the support of most or many of the people in that country.

Among people living in the West, majorities of Muslims and non-Muslims alike say they believe these extremist groups have very limited following among Muslims in their countries. But Spain is very much an exception. Fewer than half of the Spanish (46%) say Islamic extremists draw support from just some or very few Spanish Muslims; nearly as many (41%) say that most or many of Spain’s Muslims support such groups. By comparison, just 12% of Spanish Muslims say that many or most of the country’s Muslims support al Qaeda and similar groups.

In India and Russia as well, fairly large percentages of the general publics say many or most Muslims there support Islamic extremists (41% and 28%, respectively).