Concerns about Islamic Extremism on the Rise in Middle East
Negative Opinions of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah Widespread
As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. And in the Middle East, concern is growing. Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago.
Meanwhile, publics hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.
In Nigeria, the vast majority of respondents, both Muslims and Christians alike, have an unfavorable view of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that recently kidnapped hundreds of girls in the restive north of the country. And a majority of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the Taliban.
Few Muslims in most of the countries surveyed say that suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified against civilian targets in order to defend Islam from its enemies. And support for the tactic has fallen in many countries over the last decade. Still, in some countries a substantial minority say that suicide bombing can be justified.
These are the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted among 14,244 respondents in 14 countries with significant Muslim populations from April 10 to May 25, 2014. The survey was conducted prior to the recent takeover of Mosul and other areas of Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).1
Middle East Concerns about Islamic Extremism Grow
In Lebanon, which shares a long border with conflict-ridden Syria, 92% of the public is worried about Islamic extremism, up 11 points from the already high figure of 81% in 2013. Lebanese Christians (95%), Shia Muslims (95%) and Sunni Muslims (86%) all share high levels of concern.
Eight-in-ten in Tunisia express anxiety about extremism in their country, up from 71% in 2013 and 65% in 2012. Three-quarters in Egypt are also concerned, slightly increased from the 69% measured in 2013.
In the Palestinian territories, 65% worry about extremism, with much greater concern in the Gaza Strip (79%) than in the West Bank (57%).
Concerns have increased significantly over the last two years in Jordan and Turkey, both of which share a border with Syria. Roughly six-in-ten Jordanians (62%) are concerned about extremism in their country, up 13 percentage points since 2012. Just half of Turks hold this view, but this is up 18 percentage points from two years ago.
More than eight-in-ten Israelis (84%) express worries about Islamic extremism, although this view is more common among Israeli Jews (87%) than among Israeli Arabs (66%).
In Asia, strong majorities in Bangladesh (69%), Pakistan (66%) and Malaysia (63%) are concerned about Islamic extremism. However, in Indonesia, only about four-in-ten (39%) share this view, down from 48% in 2013.
In Nigeria, 72% of the public is concerned about Islamic extremism, similar to the seven-in-ten who said this in last year’s survey, before the most recent spate of terrorist attacks and kidnappings in its northern provinces. Both Nigerian Muslims (76%) and Nigerian Christians (69%) express high levels of concern.
Only 46% Senegalese are worried about extremism, down from the three-quarters registered in 2013 when unrest in neighboring Mali led to fears about extremists crossing the border. (In fact, 91% of Senegalese approved of France’s intervention against anti-government rebels in Mali, the highest support for the military action among the African and Middle Eastern nations surveyed).
Negative Views of al Qaeda Common
Al Qaeda gets negative marks in all 14 countries surveyed. Strong majorities in most countries have unfavorable opinions of the group, founded by Osama bin Laden more than a quarter century ago. In no nation do more than a quarter say they have a favorable view of the international terrorist organization. Anti-al Qaeda sentiment is strongest in Israel and Lebanon. This opinion is shared by Christians and Muslims alike in Lebanon – and by Arabs and Jews in Israel. Meanwhile, eight-in-ten or more in Turkey, Jordan and Egypt have an unfavorable opinion of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as well as many other terrorist campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Roughly three-quarters in Tunisia (74%) and six-in-ten in the Palestinian territories (59%) also have a negative view of al Qaeda. While a quarter of Palestinians have a favorable view of al Qaeda, support is down nine percentage points since 2013.
In Asia, 66% in Bangladesh and 56% in Indonesia have negative opinions of al Qaeda. Roughly four-in-ten in Pakistan and 32% in Malaysia also see the group unfavorably, but many in these countries offer no opinion.
In Tanzania, site of one of the first terrorist attacks by al Qaeda, the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, 76% have an unfavorable opinion of the extremist organization. Al Qaeda also receives little support in Senegal and Nigeria, although many offer no opinion.
Boko Haram Reviled in Nigeria
An overwhelming majority in Nigeria have an unfavorable opinion of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has been wreaking havoc in the northern regions of the country, including a high profile kidnapping of hundreds of female schoolchildren during the early stages of fieldwork for this survey. Overall, 82% of Nigerians have an unfavorable view of Boko Haram (which loosely translates as “Western education is sin”), including 79% of whom have a very unfavorable view. Negative opinions are shared by Muslims (80%) and Christians (83%) alike. Only 10% of Nigerians have a favorable view of the group. Support is little changed from 2013.
Pakistanis Have No Love for Taliban
The Taliban, which has a base of operations on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is seen unfavorably by 59% of the population in Pakistan. Only 8% have a favorable view of this extremist organization, with a third of Pakistanis not offering an opinion. Views of the Taliban have not changed substantially in recent years. Opinions toward specific branches of the Taliban, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, are also negative. In a spring 2013 survey, both those groups received low ratings (56% unfavorable and 47% unfavorable, respectively).
Hezbollah Disliked in Middle East
Hezbollah, the militant organization headquartered in Lebanon with strong ties to the Shia-led Iranian government, is seen unfavorably in every Middle Eastern country surveyed. Opinions of the extremist group, which is labelled a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and European Union, are on balance negative in Asia and Africa as well, although many in those regions do not offer an opinion.
In Lebanon, 59% have an unfavorable view of the paramilitary organization. This includes 88% of Lebanese Sunni Muslims and 69% of Lebanese Christians. However, 86% of Lebanese Shia Muslims have a favorable view of the Shia-dominated group.
More than half in the Palestinian territories (55%) and Tunisia (53%) hold negative views of Hezbollah. In the Palestinian territories, negative opinions are more pervasive in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip (69%) compared to the West Bank (46%).
Meanwhile, eight-in-ten or more in Turkey (85%), Egypt (83%) and Jordan (81%) hold unfavorable views of Hezbollah.
In Israel, which conducted a brief war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, 95% of the public sees the militant group negatively. One-hundred percent of Israeli Jews say this, while around two-thirds of Israeli Arabs (65%) agree.
A majority in Bangladesh (56%) see Hezbollah unfavorably, as do 43% in Indonesia. In Malaysia and Pakistan, most do not offer an opinion. In the African nations polled, few have positive opinions of Hezbollah, but around four-in-ten or more do not offer a response.
In all the Middle Eastern countries surveyed but one (Lebanon), negative opinions of Hezbollah have been rising in recent years. For instance, in 2007, only 41% of Egyptians had an unfavorable view of Hezbollah, but that is now 83%. Similarly, in Jordan 44% had a negative impression in 2007, but seven years later 81% do. Only in Lebanon have opinions held steady since 2007.
Hamas Viewed Negatively, Even in Palestinian Territories
Overall, most people surveyed have an unfavorable impression of Hamas, a militant Palestinian organization that is in control of the Gaza Strip and designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. This includes people who live under its rule.
More than half in the Palestinian territories (53%) have an unfavorable view of Hamas, with only about a third (35%) expressing positive views. Negative views are higher in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip (63%), up from 54% in 2013. In the Fatah-led West Bank, 47% have an unfavorable opinion of Hamas.
Opinions of Hamas have been deteriorating in the Palestinian territories since it took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Then, 62% of Palestinians had a favorable view of the extremist group, while a third had negative views. Now, only about a third have positive opinions and more than half view Hamas negatively.
Elsewhere in the region, views of Hamas are negative. This includes 65% in Lebanon. Lebanese Christians (79%) and Sunni Muslims (65%) have greater enmity towards Hamas, which is a largely Sunni organization, than do Lebanese Shia Muslims (44%), who on balance have a favorable view.
Roughly six-in-ten in Jordan and Egypt also view Hamas with disfavor. In Egypt, unfavorable views are up eight points in the last year. Furthermore, roughly four-in-ten Tunisians (42%) have a negative opinion of Hamas, up 12 percentage points from 2013.
Eight-in-ten Turks have a negative opinion of Hamas, up from 71% in 2013. More than nine-in-ten Israelis (95%) see Hamas unfavorably, including all Israeli Jews and 68% of Israeli Arabs.2
In Asia, 56% of Bangladeshis and 44% of Indonesians have an unfavorable opinion of Hamas, while most in Malaysia and Pakistan do not offer opinions. In Africa, views of Hamas are negative, although many do not offer an opinion.
When Muslims are asked whether suicide bombing or other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies, few in the countries surveyed say that this form of violence is often or sometimes justified, and support has generally diminished in the last decade. Still, significant minorities of Muslims in a few countries do hold the view that it can be justified.
In the Middle East, support for suicide bombing is highest in the Palestinian territories, where 46% of Muslims say that it is often or sometimes justified in order to defend Islam. Support is particularly high among Muslims in Gaza (62%) versus those in the West Bank (36%).
In Lebanon, 29% of Muslims say targeting civilians is justified. This includes 37% of Shia Muslims but only 21% among Sunni Muslims. Meanwhile, a quarter or less of Muslims in Egypt (24%), Turkey (18%), Israel (16%) and Jordan (15%) say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified. Among Tunisian Muslims, only 5% say this.
Nearly half of Bangladeshi Muslims (47%) believe suicide bombing can be justified. This is much higher than the 18% of Muslims in Malaysia who say the same. In Indonesia and Pakistan, countries which have been rocked by suicide bombings in the past decade, one-in-ten Muslims or less say that targeting civilians is often or sometimes justified (9% and 3%, respectively).
More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and after hundreds of high profile attacks on civilians, the percentage of Muslims who say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified has fallen in many of the countries surveyed. For instance, in 2002, 74% of Lebanese Muslims said suicide bombing was often or sometimes justified. But in the wake of well-publicized attacks, such as the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, support has fallen to just 29% today.
In Jordan, which experienced a devastating sequence of terrorist attacks on three hotels in Amman in 2005, support for the tactic among Muslims has fallen from 57% before those attacks to 15% today. A similar trend is found in Pakistan, where suicide bombing was falling out of favor with Muslims even before the attack on former Benazir Bhutto which ended her life in 2007. A decade ago, 41% of Pakistani Muslims said attacks on civilians were justified, but that has fallen to just 3% today.
As recent as last year, 62% of Palestinian Muslims said that suicide bombing was at least sometimes justified, but that support has fallen 16 percentage points since 2013. This tracks with increased negative opinions toward extremist groups among Palestinians in the last year.
However, in Nigeria, where suicide bombings have been on the increase in recent years, support for the tactic has actually risen, from 8% in 2013 to 19% today. Still, the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims reject suicide bombing (61% say it is never justified).
- As of June 29, 2014, ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate, and that it would be known simply as “the Islamic State” going forward. ↩
- The survey was conducted before the formation of a unity government between Fatah and Hamas in early June and before the abduction and subsequent death of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. ↩