February 5, 2015

Widespread concerns about extremism in Muslim nations, and little support for it

The horrific murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh has generated shock and outrage around the globe. And if recent history is a guide, this brutal act will only deepen opposition to ISIS, and to violent extremism more generally, in Jordan and other predominantly Muslim nations.

At the Pew Research Center, we’ve been asking questions related to extremism on our international surveys for over a decade, and what we’ve generally found among Muslim publics is that support for extremism is low, while concerns about it are high.

Concerns About Extremism in Middle EastEven before ISIS’s battlefield victories and humanitarian atrocities began capturing international headlines last summer, we found growing worries about extremism in the Middle East. For instance, 62% of Jordanians said they were concerned about Islamic extremism in their country in our spring 2014 poll, up from 54% a year earlier. There were also increases in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey.

The survey also found mostly negative views toward al Qaeda and other extremist groups in these and many other predominantly Muslim countries. The most positive rating for al Qaeda was in the Palestinian territories, where 25% had a favorable view of the terrorist organization.

One pattern we’ve seen in different parts of the world is that the more people are exposed to terrorist violence, the more they reject it. Jordan is a good example. Early in the last decade, Jordanians expressed relatively high levels of support for suicide bombing and confidence in Osama bin Laden, but this changed after the November 2005 suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman, Jordan’s capital. The bombings, which killed dozens and wounded more than 100, were orchestrated by an al Qaeda affiliate, led at the time by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

After Amman Bombings, Jordanians Rejected bin Laden, Suicide AttacksA few months later, a Pew Research survey found the percentage of Jordanian Muslims saying suicide attacks can often or sometimes be justified had fallen from 57% to 29%. Today, it stands at 15%. Similarly, confidence in bin Laden plummeted from 61% to 24% after the bombings, and by the time of his death just 13% of Jordanians had confidence in the terrorist leader.

Pakistan is another example. The terrible violence Pakistanis have experienced at the hands of the Taliban and other groups over the past decade has led many to reject violent extremism. In 2004, 41% of Pakistani Muslims said suicide bombing can often or sometimes be justified; by 2014 only 3% held this view.

In 2009, when the Taliban occupied Pakistan’s Swat Valley and threatened to drive even closer to the nation’s capital, Islamabad, opposition to the extremist group jumped dramatically. In 2008, just 33% of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, but this rose to 70% in the 2009 survey. In Pakistan and elsewhere, once terrorist violence and extremist rule has become a reality, people have rejected it.

Topics: Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa, Muslims and Islam

  1. Photo of Richard Wike

    is director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Zhu2 years ago

    Little support for extremism? Only if you count violent extremism. Also interesting that Jordanians were pro-Bin Laden until it hit their own backyard.

    Is that really principled liberalism or just NIMBYism? If you were pro-Bin Laden in the years after 9/11 that says everything about Jordan.

    By the way, your own 2013 muslim poll show very high support for the dealth penalty for homosexuals and overwhelming hostility to women. According to your 2013 mass poll, over 88% of muslims in MENA say that “a wife must obey her husband”. Just 33% even want to give her the right to divorce.

    If a strong majority of Christians in a European country wouldn’t even want to give women the right to divorce, would Pew rush to say that these people “condemn” extremism? How low can your bar go?

  2. Beauchard2 years ago

    What is “little” in this context?
    There are more than 1.6 billion Muslims. If a resounding majority of 80% do not support extremism that still leaves 300 million people who do support it.
    Lebanon has a population of less than 6 million while the population of Pakistan is 200 million. When the size of the populations are so different, comparisons of percentages has little merit
    By only using percentages as the context Pew paints a somewhat incorrect picture. “Little” support sounds very different to still supported by hundreds of millions of people.

    1. Henry R Mandel2 years ago

      Amen. Does this good post illustrate a bias at PEW?

    2. Scott Barksdale2 years ago

      Incorrect. That is not how polls work. 80% who do not support them does not mean 20% do support them, because there’s a middle ground; you have to take a statistic on the number who openly do support them, the number who are neutral/don’t have an opinion, the number who refuse to answer, etc. etc.

      Also, it is important to make a distinction between extremists and violent extremists. Extremists are not an issue; violent extremists are. And these findings are consistent with those of the CIA earlier this year, that less than 1% of worldwide Muslims are at risk of violent extremism.

  3. Mike Ghouse2 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this,

    Mike Ghouse

  4. Chris Elliott2 years ago

    Hey Richard,
    First of all, thanks for doing this research. I appreciate the enormity of undertaking any quantitative research of this nature.
    I take issue with one thing however – the title. The article comes to a conclusion about public opinion in “Muslim countries” based on research gathered in Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. It is true that all of these countries are majority Muslim but it is wrong to assume that opinion polls taken in these countries are demonstrative of any conclusive quantifiable truth about “public opinion in Muslim countries”.
    Since we are speaking statistically, a larger, more inclusive sample size would be required before coming to this conclusion.
    It would be interesting to see how these stats might look if accurate data could be collected in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, the Emirates, Iraq and Syria (not to mention other non-Arab Muslim countries like Mali or Indonesia). Let’s not forget that “extremism” finds its ideological birthplace in Saudi, is funded by oil money from the Gulf and is being carried out in Iraq and Syria. Of course, the reality on the ground probably precludes the collection of the aforementioned accurate data which therefore precludes you from arriving at the general conclusion you have sought to obtain.
    As such, to argue that your data is demonstrative of “all” and not “some” Muslim nations (not stated but partially implied with the title) is grossly fallacious.
    I have spent time in all of the countries (except Turkey) mentioned in your research and all of them are vastly different culturally and demographically to other Muslim countries I have visited (eg: Yemen). For example, it is not uncommon to see a local woman with her hair out in all the capital cities in your research – Amman, Lebanon, Tunis, Cairo… not so in Sana’a or Riyadh.
    I highly recommend that you specify “some” in the article’s title to avoid an over-generalisation.
    Once again, many thanks.

    1. Henry R Mandel2 years ago

      Bias alert?

  5. Bill McConochie, Ph.D.2 years ago

    Pew Research Center provides a very valuable service in conducting its longitudinal polls of public opinion around the world. This is dramatically evident in the data Pew provides about opinions about violent extremist activities, of which the pubic increasingly disapproves the closer it gets to home. Citizens may have a tendency to cheer on efforts to protest injustice, loosely defined, but then, when protest activities kill their own children and neighbors and tourists in their countries they realize that uncivil protest/activism is counter-productive. My research in political psychology clarifies a pro-social/promotional activism that can be more productive. I’ve recently published a book of my findings. Thanks again for the Pew Polls, they are, in effect, the voice of the people, democracy in action!

  6. Raja Muhammad Ali Saleem2 years ago

    Human beings tend to minimize or completely disown their own mistakes and exaggerate the failings of whoever they do not like. They also have a habit of dividing the world in groups of us and them.
    So, although I think Muslims and Non-Muslims are too big and differentiated groups for me to pass judgments on, I would like to ask a few questions from the people who commented before me.
    Can they explain of why 90% of world ‘Non-Muslims’ didn’t stop Bush/Blair and the ‘insane ones’ from going to Iraq in 2003?
    Can they explain why 90% of world ‘Non-Muslims’ didn’t stop the communists from invading Afghanistan in 1979?
    Can they explain why 90% of ‘Non-Muslims’ didn’t stop the US from collecting Bin Laden and the likes from all over the world and funding both their military training and the spread of extremist ideology?
    Can they explain why 90% of ‘Non-Muslims’ didn’t stop colonialism? Do they really think what is happening now in the ‘Muslim world’ has nothing to do with what happened in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries when ‘non-Muslims’ occupied ‘Muslim world’?

    I think first ‘non-Muslims’ should accept and correct their ‘problems’. ‘They’ have been ‘very slow’ in admitting the calamities ‘they’ have been ‘responsible’ for. After that, ‘Muslims’ can think about ‘them’ more positively.

    1. Zhu2 years ago

      Raja, except that most in Britain, for example, were against the war. But there is not always much that can be done. The muslim population, on other hand, are often more extreme than their secular dictators who often struggle to catch up. That’s the critical difference.

      1. Raja Muhammad Ali Saleem2 years ago

        Zhu, if most of Britain had really been against the war, they would have punished Blair but they did not. He won handsomely. That is the critical difference.

        Please understand Muslims and Non-Muslims are both more than 1.8 billion people. You cannot think of them as a group.

        In which Muslim-majority country (of the 50 such countries) is the Muslim population more extreme than secular dictators?
        How do you define extreme? Is it support of suicide bombers, terrorism, amputation of hand, death for adultery or apostasy etc. ?
        Each of the fifty Muslim-majority countries come up with different numbers?

        But if you still subscribe to to the thinking that all 1800000000 Muslims are alike and think on the same way on all major issues then you have to answer the following:

        The idea that Muslim-majority population is extremist and secular leaders are moderate serves the dictators and their masters (the US, UK, erstwhile USSR, France, China etc.) . That’s why it never dies.

        Why are Muslim so dysfunctional, medieval and uncivilized? Perhaps they are have to be ‘civilized’. Right?

        Perhaps if the Non-Muslim governments and people are so much against extremism, they could stop supporting the most ‘extremist’ country of all, Saudi Arabia. A country that not only is extremist itself but spends billions to fund extremism in the whole world. But non-Muslims are Saudi Arabia’s biggest allies. And expect for some voices here or there, I do not see many non-Muslims governments or people rising to stop support for Saudi Arabian extremism. Perhaps if ordinary non-Muslims themselves could stop supporting terrorism, it would help.

        I cannot explain you here but if you want to understand why many Muslims do not like the Non-Muslims perhaps you can read the history of Colonialism and Cold War, when there were few Muslim terrorists.

    2. Henry R Mandel2 years ago

      Hmm. And do tell us Raja please, exactly how Islam was originally spread around the world prior to the 15th Century.

  7. Aslam092212 years ago

    The research is defective and seems to be a media trial of Islam. It could not relize the origin of violance and extremism in poor Muslim countries since 9/11. The violance was injected by CIA through terrorist groups – Alqaeda and now ISIS which are accomplishing the unfinished business in Iraq and Syria. What is the origin of Alqaeda and ISIS? No one knows and no Muslim country send them to spread violance in their neighbour… then who else but CIA – the promotor of state terrorism in Muslim countries. PEW researchers must know the root cause of specific events in specific countries and should not blame the whole Muslim nation because the violance is just moving from Afghanistan and Iraq to whole of the middle East (Global Oil-well) while the Muslim Nation is much greater than these Middle East countries. This type of researches would be thrown into the baskets soon because Islam has no room for Terrorism and violance.

    1. Brian Machesney2 years ago

      It must say something about people in any country, though, that their approval of terrorist attacks in a neighboring country changes when their own country comes under attack. It would be interesting to compare Mr Wike’s results to the opinions of Americans about terrorist attacks in the Middle East or in Asian countries, of which they are likely relatively ignorant. Sarah Chayes points out in her recently-published book, “Thieves of State”, that what appears to “outsiders” as sectarian violence is actually violent populism resulting from the oppressive force of institutionalized corruption propped up by international actors.

  8. Gabor Toka2 years ago

    This is a nice and timely reminder to both terrorists and their opponents that most people in the Middle East oppose murdering innocent people. Yet, given that the overwhelming majority of jihadist terror attacks in the contemporary world are inflicted at people in predominantly Moslem countries, one has to wonder (1) how low trust in the jihadist terror organizations has to fall before the flow of support that keeps these organizations alive will dry out; (2) how much less coverage the suffering caused by jihadist terror gets – say for every one victim per million people – in media in the Middle East than in the West, and indeed what rate of coverage is “right” in this instance; and (3) what is the level of trust in the same organizations in, say, France or the US? I know it may be awkward to include the “trust in al Qaeda” item in surveys of Western populations but still, are you totally sure that the latter would show near-zero trust?

    1. Beauchard2 years ago

      You are falling into the percentage trap. 100% of Lebanon is in actual numbers only 3% of Pakistan. Comparing percentages of countries with such big differences in population has little merit.
      An example: “In 2008, just 33% of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, but this rose to 70% in the 2009 survey.” Sounds great. However the 30% of Pakistanis with a favorable view correspond to 60 million people, which is about ten times the whole population of Lebanon.
      Let’s say that 80% of the Muslim population worldwide have an unfavorable view of extremism. That “little” support, only 20% , still corresponds to some 300 million people.

      1. aamir2 years ago

        Vast majority of pakistan has rejected talibans theory… and its has been proven by pakistan efforts against terrorism .. now terrorism is on decline from pakistan as taliban has been crushed by intense military operation here in last 2 years.. soon terrorism will be no issue here in pakistan

  9. Mark Smith2 years ago

    What this data ignores and does not include in this graph is suicide bombing is “rarely justified” which begs the question what is really the difference between ‘sometimes’ and ‘rarely’ given the ethical values enabling genocide against Other clearly exist in the ‘rarely justified’ – “I am am for genocide but only a little bit so I am not so bad.” This is what humanity have come to accept? Yes we have otherwise you would have included it.

    From my memory this graph would be quite different if the ‘suicide bombing is rarely justified’ which means the ethical value exists, suicide bombing is justified which is really the point data the data is not insignificant.

    Also the insanity of accepting any level of a genocide construct is acceptable – it has fallen whoopy! The fact it is able to be informed from any cultural codex this one being Islam is completely unacceptable.

    Jordan rejected bin laden, suicide attacks is a lie clearly the graphs shows they have always supported such attacks – so when the data rises from 40-57 they support terror attacks when it falls from 57-24 they do not support terror attacks and when it rises 12-20 or 12-15 they do -are you serious? Yes you are and that is the insanity we have to confront and be called bigots and racists for calling attention to the depravity of such a position.

    1. Martin Christensen2 years ago

      While, I see your point and worry, it’s important to see in the context that not only muslims support violent protests or terroisms. When polling non muslims in western countries, then there’s also quite a significant minority who accept terroism.
      Does this make it less worrysome? Probably not. But it does put it in a context where extremity and terroism is not a distinct muslim thrait, it exist in any kind of society in larger or smaller degrees.

  10. Byron Snyder2 years ago

    Very interesting. . . . my liberal daughter has constantly berated me for my negativity over muslims. Still, I have to repeat, “If the 90% majority are not going to take the necessary action to reign in the “insane 10%”, what are we to think and how are we to view muslims in a more positive light.

    1. Brian Machesney2 years ago

      But, Mr Snyder, whether liberal or conservative, could the same not be said for much of the domestic and international action taken by the US and other “Western” countries and their agents? I personally feel zero ability to affect US policy on any front, a feeling which is confirmed by the paper, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” by Gilens and Page. Surely this must be even more true in countries dominated by admittedly authoritarian regimes than it is in our supposed pluralistic democracy, where the pool of candidates from which we are allowed to make our selections are beholden to the wealthy and powerful who fund their campaigns.

  11. David2 years ago

    Islamic extremism is a Muslim responsibility and Muslims
    are doing little or nothing about it which in my thinking
    indicates approval.

    1. Jaspur2 years ago

      Then your thinking would be wrong. It is more likely that “doing little or nothing about it” indicates fear.

  12. Papa Foote2 years ago

    The Old Mountain Goat things that the “Good Muslims” have been “Very Slow” to “take care of” the “Bad Muslims” – but, there seems to be a “favorable wind” sweeping in to “Muslim Territory”!

  13. Katheryn2 years ago

    I study English with mostly Muslims, and in the countries where Muslim extremists are most dangerous, they are most likely want to secretly leave their religion altogether.