A new Pew poll of 11 Muslim countries shows that Islamist terrorist groups still command double-digit support, with Hamas being looked upon favorably by about one-third of respondents. About one-fourth do not have an opinion of the terrorists, leaving them up for grabs in the ideological war.
The poll found that overall Muslim support for acts of violence against civilians in the name of Islam has dropped over the last decade, while concern about Islamic extremism has risen. About 67% are concerned about extremism in their faith and 27% are unconcerned.
The 11 countries surveyed are: Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Senegal, Tunisia and Turkey.
The country with the worst trend is Turkey. It is the only country where support for suicide bombings has increased.
About 13% supported the tactic in 2012 and 16% support it today, but this small increase doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2011, Turkish support for suicide bombing was at 7%. This means that support for suicide bombing more than doubled in the past two years.
Hamas is the most popular of the terrorist groups. Almost one-third (32%) of Muslims surveyed have a positive opinion of it and 45% have an unfavorable view.
The countries most supportive of Hamas are Egypt and the Palestinian Territories (48% support) and Lebanon and Tunisia (46%). The countries most hostile are Turkey (5%), Senegal (11%) and Pakistan (12%).
Hezbollah is the runner-up in terms of popularity. Overall, 26% of the Muslim world supports Hezbollah. About 42% have an unfavorable opinion. This is still an impressing showing because Hezbollah is a Shiite terrorist group. Even though 90% of the Muslim world is Sunni and Hezbollah kills Sunnis, it still has a large pool of support.
The countries most supportive of Hezbollah are Lebanon (46%), the Palestinian Territories (43%) and Malaysia and Tunisia (35%). The countries most hostile to Hezbollah are Turkey (7%), Senegal (10%) and Pakistan (15%).
The Taliban took third place. About 13% of the Muslim world supports the group and 51% disapprove.
The countries most support of the Taliban are the Palestinian Territories (29%), Egypt (28%) and Malaysia (23%). The countries most hostile to the Taliban are Lebanon (4%), Jordan (9%) and Turkey (10%).
Al-Qaeda still commands double-digit support despite its mass killings of Muslims and widespread conspiracy theories that it is a puppet of the CIA and Mossad. Altogether, 13% of Muslims in these countries have a favorable view of Al-Qaeda and 57% have an unfavorable view.
The three countries most supportive of Al-Qaeda are the Palestinian Territories (35%), Indonesia (23%) and Egypt (20%). The three most hostile to Al-Qaeda are Lebanon (1%), Turkey (7%) and Nigeria and Senegal tied for third (9%).
Pew’s findings in Nigeria were particularly interesting. Al-Qaeda’s support has fallen 40% since 2010 and its Nigerian affiliate, Boko Haram, fell 24%. Overall, a mere two percent have a favorable opinion of Boko Haram and 83% are unfavorable towards it.
The good news is that Boko Haram has lost the ideological war in Nigeria. The bad news is that this shows the destruction that can be wrought by a terrorist group with just 2% favorability.
Questions posed to Nigerians about Sharia, the heart of the Islamist ideology, are very important. About 38% say that Nigerian laws should not be influenced by Sharia at all, while 32% say the country’s laws should strict follow Sharia. About 24% say the laws should follow the values and principles of Sharia.
The meaning of these statistics is that the Islamist ideology has been rejected by over one-third of Nigerian Muslims. A little bit less than one-third share the goals of Boko Haram, but mostly reject the group’s vicious tactics. Approximately one-fourth want Sharia to essentially be a source for legislation, but not the source.
Across the board, about one-fourth of respondents (23-27%) said they did not know how they felt about the terrorist group in question. It is possible that a portion of these respondents feared that the pollsters would share their information with adversarial security services, thereby deflating the number of Muslims who support these terrorist groups.
Assuming that the majority of this one-fourth is genuinely undecided, that means that both the Islamists and the Islamists’ enemies have huge opportunities to gain supporters. If the Islamists succeed in winning over these minds, then they will have a significant advantage in shaping the future of the Muslim world.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.