More than two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, concern about Islamic extremism remains widespread among Muslims from South Asia to the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa. Across 11 Muslim publics surveyed by the Pew Research Center, a median of 67% say they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism. In five countries – Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey and Indonesia – Muslim worries about extremism have increased in the past year.
Against this backdrop, extremist groups, including al Qaeda, garner little popular support. Even before his death in 2011, confidence in al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had plummeted among many Muslims. Today, al Qaeda is widely reviled, with a median of 57% across the 11 Muslims publics surveyed saying they have an unfavorable opinion of the terrorist organization that launched the twin attacks on New York City and Washington, DC more than a decade ago.
The Taliban, who once shared Afghanistan as a base of operation with al Qaeda, are viewed negatively by a median of 51% of Muslims in the countries polled. Hezbollah and Hamas fare little better. Hezbollah, in particular, has seen its support slip in key Middle Eastern countries, including a 38 percentage point drop in favorable views among Egyptian Muslims since 2007.
In many of the countries surveyed, clear majorities of Muslims oppose violence in the name of Islam. Indeed, about three-quarters or more in Pakistan (89%), Indonesia (81%), Nigeria (78%) and Tunisia (77%), say suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified. And although substantial percentages in some countries do think suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified – including a 62%-majority of Palestinian Muslims, overall support for violence in the name of Islam has declined among Muslim publics during the past decade.
These are among the key findings from a survey of 11 Muslim publics conducted by the Pew Research Center from March 3 to April 7, 2013. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 8,989 Muslims in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Senegal, Tunisia and Turkey. The survey also finds that Nigerian Muslims overwhelmingly oppose Boko Haram, the extremist movement at the center of a violent uprising in northern Nigeria. One of Boko Haram’s stated aims is to establish sharia, or Islamic law, as the official law of the land. Nigerian Muslims are divided on whether their country’s laws should closely follow the teachings of the Quran.
Majorities in most of the Muslim publics surveyed express concerns about Islamic extremism in their country. Senegalese Muslims are the most worried (75% concerned), but at least six-in-ten Muslims in Lebanon, Tunisia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories are also concerned. More Jordanian Muslims (54%) see Islamic extremism as a threat than do not (45%).
In Indonesia, the Muslim public is evenly split: 48% concerned vs. 48% unconcerned. Turkey, meanwhile, is the only country surveyed where at least half of Muslims (51%) say they are not worried about Islamic extremism.
Concern about extremism has increased in some of the countries surveyed, including Pakistan, where two-thirds of Muslims now say they fear the threat of Islamic extremism, compared with 58% in 2012.1 In Tunisia, six-in-ten Muslims are now very concerned, up from 42% saying the same a year ago. Conversely, in the Palestinian territories, the proportion of Muslims worried about extremism has declined 14 percentage points since 2011, the last time the question was asked there.
In Lebanon, large majorities of Shia and Sunni Muslims share concerns about Islamic extremism (74% and 72%, respectively); these worries are even more pronounced among Lebanon’s Christians (92%). In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims are about equally worried, with 74% of the Christian population and 69% of the Muslim population expressing concern. However, the proportion of Nigerian Muslims worried about extremism has dropped 14 percentage points since 2010. In Malaysia, Muslims are much more worried than their Buddhist countrymen about Islamic extremism (70% vs. 46%).
Widespread Muslim concern about Islamic extremism is generally coupled with rejection of suicide bombing and other forms of violence in the name of Islam. However, in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims say attacks on civilians are at least sometimes justified to defend Islam from its enemies; in the Palestinian territories, a majority of Muslims hold this view.
Half or more of Muslims in most countries surveyed say that suicide bombing and other acts of violence that target civilians can never be justified in the name of Islam. This opinion is most prevalent in Pakistan (89%), Indonesia (81%), Nigeria (78%), and Tunisia (77%). Majorities or pluralities share this unequivocal rejection of religious-inspired violence in Malaysia (58% never justified), Turkey (54%), Jordan (53%), and Senegal (50%). In Malaysia, however, roughly a quarter of Muslims (27%) take the view that attacks on civilians are sometimes or often justified.
In Lebanon and Egypt, too, substantial minorities of Muslims (33% and 25%, respectively) think suicide bombings and similar attacks in the name of Islam are at least sometimes justified. However, in both countries, more Muslims say such violence is never justified (41% in Lebanon and 39% in Egypt). Shia Muslims in Lebanon (39%) are more likely than the country’s Sunni Muslims (26%) to take the view that violence in the name of Islam is sometimes or often justified.
Support for suicide bombing and other violence aimed at civilian targets is most widespread in the Palestinian territories, with 62% of Muslims saying that such attacks are often or sometimes justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Support is strong both in Hamas-ruled Gaza (64%) and the Fatah-governed West Bank (60%).
Overall, support for suicide bombing and related forms of violence has declined in the last decade across the Muslim publics surveyed. Since 2002, the percentage of Muslims who say suicide bombing is at least sometimes justified has dropped 41 percentage points in Lebanon, 31 points in Jordan and 30 points in Pakistan. In Nigeria, meanwhile, support has declined 26 points since 2010.
Across most of the countries surveyed, gender, age, income and education are not closely associated with support for suicide bombing. However, there is a generational gap in Tunisia, with Muslims under 30 years of age more than twice as likely as those 50 and older to say that suicide bombing is at least sometimes justified (17% vs. 6%). In Lebanon, attitudes toward suicide bombing also vary with age, but in the opposite direction: Muslims 50 years or older (43%) are more likely than those 18-29 years of age (28%) to say such violence is justified.
Egypt is the only country surveyed where views of suicide bombing vary by income level. Egyptian Muslims with lower incomes (38%) are more supportive of violence in the name of Islam than those with higher incomes (19%).2
For the most part, support for suicide bombing is not correlated with devoutness. Generally, Muslims who say they pray five times per day are no more likely to support targeting civilians to protect Islam than those who pray less often. The only exception is the Palestinian territories, where 66% of Muslims who pray five times per day say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified versus 49% of those who pray less than five times per day.
Overall, views of extremist groups are negative across the Muslim publics surveyed. A median of about a third or fewer have a positive view of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, or Hezbollah. And in no country polled do any of these organizations receive majority Muslim support.
Al Qaeda, which is responsible for some of the most well-known and devastating terrorist attacks in the last 15 years, receives the most negative ratings among the extremist groups included in the survey. A median of 57% across the 11 Muslim publics surveyed hold an unfavorable view of the group. This includes strong majorities of Muslims in Lebanon (96%), Jordan (81%), Turkey (73%), and Egypt (69%). More than half of Muslims in Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Palestinian territories also view al Qaeda negatively. In Pakistan and Malaysia, Muslim views of al Qaeda are on balance unfavorable, but many offer no opinion.
In most countries surveyed, perceptions of al Qaeda are largely unchanged since last year. But in Nigeria, negative views of al Qaeda have intensified since 2010 – rising 28 percentage points, from 34% to 62% unfavorable. By contrast, since 2011, positive ratings of al Qaeda have ticked up seven percentage points among Muslims in the Palestinian territories (from 28% to 35% favorable).
Overall, a median of 45% across the Muslim publics surveyed have an unfavorable view of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. In the Palestinian territories, opinions of Hamas are mixed, with 45% of Muslims viewing the group unfavorably, compared with 48% who say they have a favorable view.3
Although Hamas’ once close ties with Iran and Hezbollah have been strained by the current conflict in Syria, the Palestinian militant organization is still viewed positively by a majority of Lebanese Shia Muslims (62%). By contrast, two-thirds of Lebanese Sunni (67%) have an unfavorable opinion of the group, as do about eight-in-ten (81%) Lebanese Christians.
Elsewhere in the Middle East views of Hamas tend to be largely negative. Half or more of Muslims in Turkey (73%), Jordan (55%), and Lebanon (52%) have an unfavorable opinion of the militant organization, with about half in Egypt (49%) sharing that view. However, in Tunisia, a 46% plurality are favorably inclined toward Hamas – the only instance where any of the extremist groups polled receive plurality support among Muslims in any of the countries surveyed.
Outside the Middle East, fewer Muslims have definite opinions about Hamas. Overall, Muslim attitudes are divided in Senegal, Malaysia, and Pakistan, although many offer no opinion. In Indonesia, a 45%-plurality sees the Palestinian group unfavorably. In Nigeria, pluralities of both Christians and Muslims have no opinion.
Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, support for the organization has fallen among Palestinian Muslims (-15 percentage points). The loss of support has been especially dramatic among Muslims in the West Bank: in 2007, 70% had a positive opinion of Hamas, compared with 51% today. In the Gaza Strip, opinion has not significantly changed since 2007.
Since 2007, support for Hamas has also declined among Muslims in Pakistan (-31), Jordan (-20), Malaysia (-20), Indonesia (-19), and Turkey (-10).
Hezbollah, which is headquartered in Lebanon and whose forces have been fighting alongside President Bashar-al-Assad’s troops in Syria,4 is viewed unfavorably by a median of 42% among the Muslim publics surveyed. In Lebanon itself, views of the extremist group divide along sectarian lines. Among the country’s Sunni Muslims more than nine-in-ten (94%) have a negative opinion of Hezbollah, as do six-in-ten Lebanese Christians. By contrast, 89% of Lebanese Shia have a favorable view of Hezbollah, with only one-in-ten viewing the militant group unfavorably.
In the Middle East, nearly three-in-four in Egypt (74%), Turkey (73%), and Jordan (72%) express distaste for Hezbollah. Views are mixed in the Palestinian territories, where 49% of Muslims overall have a negative view of Hezbollah, compared with 43% who have a positive opinion. However, Hezbollah is more popular among Muslims in the West Bank than the Gaza Strip (51% vs. 31%).
Muslim attitudes toward Hezbollah are mixed in Senegal, Tunisia, and Indonesia, with many offering no opinion. In Malaysia, Nigeria, and Pakistan even more have no views on this question.
Compared with a year ago, views of Hezbollah are largely unchanged in most of the Muslim publics surveyed. However, since 2007, Muslims in the Palestinian territories have grown less supportive of the militant Shia organization, with positive views dropping 33 percentage points from 76% to 43% favorable. Since 2007, Hezbollah has also seen declining support among Muslims in Egypt (-38 points) and Jordan (-28).
Across the Muslim publics surveyed, a median of 51% have an unfavorable view of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement almost exclusively based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Majorities of Muslims in Lebanon (92%), Jordan (82%), Egypt (70%), Turkey (70%), and Pakistan (65%) have a negative opinion of the group. About half of Muslims in Nigeria (51%), Tunisia (50%), and the Palestinian territories (50%) share this view.
Pluralities in Senegal, Malaysia, and Indonesia also view the Taliban unfavorably, although many in these countries have no opinion.
Nigerians Reject Boko Haram
When asked about the Islamist group Boko Haram, roughly eight-in-ten Nigerian Muslims (83%) say they have an unfavorable opinion of the extremist movement. Even more Nigerian Christians (92%) say the same.
With the death toll from Boko Haram’s terrorist campaigns numbering in the thousands, it is perhaps not surprising that among the 69% of Nigerian Muslims concerned by Islamic extremism, a 48%-plurality say they are most worried by the violence associated with extremism. Fewer say their worries focus on the possibility that extremism will lead to reduced personal freedoms (19%), hurt the country’s economy (15%), or divide the nation (10%). Christian Nigerians worried about Islamic extremism are also most concerned about the violent nature of extremist groups (64%).
Amid the plethora of terrorist attacks in Nigeria’s north, support among Nigerian Muslims for suicide bombing has plummeted since 2010 – from 34% three years ago to just 8% today.
Since 2010, Nigerian Muslims have also grown increasingly negative towards the extremist groups asked about in the survey. Among the country’s Muslims, favorable views of al Qaeda have fallen 40 percentage points over the past three years, followed by a 24-point drop for both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Nigerians Divide on Islamic Law
One of Boko Haram’s stated intentions is to make sharia, or Islamic law, the official law of the land in Nigeria. Nigerian Muslims are divided on how closely their laws should follow the Quran. Given three possible options, 38% say their country’s laws should not be influenced by the Quran at all; 32% think Nigeria’s laws should strictly adhere to the teachings of the Quran; and 24% offer that the nation’s laws should follow the values and principles of Islam, but not strictly mirror the Quran.
For their part, a clear majority of Nigerian Christians (70%) say laws in Nigeria should not be influenced by the Quran.