September 10, 2009

Declining Support for bin Laden and Suicide Bombing

by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Research Associate, Pew Global Attitudes Project

Eight years after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that support for Osama bin Laden has declined considerably among Muslim publics in recent years. Moreover, majorities or pluralities among eight of the nine Muslim publics surveyed this year say that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians can never be justified to defend Islam; only in the Palestinian territories does a majority endorse such attacks.

The drop in support for bin Ladenhas been most dramatic in Indonesia, Pakistan and Jordan. Currently, about one-quarter of Muslims in Jordan (28%) and Indonesia (25%) express confidence in the al Qaeda leader to do the right thing regarding world affairs; in 2003, majorities in each country agreed (56% and 59%, respectively).

In Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, 18% of Muslims now say they have confidence in him. Just last year, 34% of Pakistani Muslims expressed support for bin Laden and, in 2003, nearly half (46%) agreed. Pakistani Muslims’ views of al Qaeda have also grown less favorable over the past year; 9% have a favorable view of the group, compared with 25% in 2008. (Publics in the other nations surveyed were not asked about their opinion of al Qaeda in the current poll; for a more detailed analysis of Pakistani views about extremism see “Pakistani Public Opinion: Growing Concerns About Extremism, Continuing Discontent with U.S.,” released Aug. 13, 2009)

Only in Nigeria is Osama bin Laden more popular among Muslims than he was earlier in the decade. More than half of Nigerian Muslims (54%) have confidence in bin Laden when it comes to world affairs; 44% said that was the case in 2003.

Bin Laden also has the support of most Muslims in the Palestinian territories (52%), but a much more solid majority of Palestinian Muslims had confidence in him in 2003 (72%). Young Palestinians are far more likely to express positive views of the al Qaeda leader. Six-in-ten Palestinian Muslims under 30 say they have confidence in bin Laden; 46% of those age 30 and older share that view. The age gap was much narrower in 2003 — 76% of those under 30 and 69% in the older age group had confidence in bin Laden then.

Support for suicide bombing and other forms or violence that target civilians has also declined in recent years. Among the Muslim publics surveyed, Pakistanis now express the strongest rejection to this kind of violence — 87% say such acts are never justified. In 2002, just months after the September 11 attacks, one-third in Pakistan said suicide bombing was often or sometimes justified in order to defend Islam, while 43% said it was rarely or never justified.

In Lebanon, the percentage of Muslims that say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified has plummeted to 38% from 74% in 2002. Still, support for this kind of violence against civilians among Muslims in Lebanon is one of the highest among the publics surveyed. Lebanese Shias are about twice as likely as Sunnis to endorse suicide bombing (51% vs. 25%).