Strong majorities of people in predominantly Muslim countries reject terrorism but support key goals of al-Qaeda, notably expelling U.S. military forces from the Islamic world, according to a major new study of public opinion in seven nations and the Palestinian territories released here Wednesday.
Nearly 90 percent of Egyptian respondents, 65 percent of Indonesians, 62 percent of Pakistanis, and 72 percent of Moroccans said they agreed with al-Qaeda's goal of "push(ing) the U.S. to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries," according to a detailed survey carried out late last summer by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
Majorities or pluralities of respondents in five of the eight countries – the Palestinian territories (90 percent), Egypt (83 percent), Jordan (72 percent) and Morocco (68 percent), and Turkey (40 percent) – said they approved of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. Slightly lower percentages in each of those countries said they approved of attacks on U.S. military forces elsewhere in the Gulf and in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. faces a conundrum," said Steven Kull, director of PIPA's WorldPublicOpinion.org. "U.S. efforts to fight terrorism with an expanded military presence in Muslim countries appear to have elicited a backlash and to have bred some sympathy for al-Qaeda, even as most (Muslims) reject its terrorist methods."
Indeed, only small minorities in all seven of the countries surveyed – ranging from six percent in Azerbaijan to 15 percent in Jordan – said they approved of attacks on U.S. civilians working in Islamic countries. Respondents in the Palestinian territories, however, said they approved of such attacks, although 50 percent said they opposed them, and another 18 percent said they had mixed views on the question.
But, as a general principle, majorities took a negative view toward the use of violence, such as bombings and assassinations, to achieve political or religious goals. Two-thirds of Pakistani respondents, 83 percent of Egyptians and nearly 90 percent of Indonesians said such methods could not be justified at all, according to the survey.
The survey, which was the latest in a series dating back to 2007 conducted by PIPA, was designed to gauge public opinion about al-Qaeda and the United States in predominantly Muslim countries.
Because the polling took place last summer, the new study did not account for how the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president may have affected views on these issues, if at all.
"There is openness that things could change" with the new administration, Kull said Wednesday, citing post-election polls of Muslim countries, but it hasn't happened yet, and the Islamic world is "still watching."
PIPA and its affiliates carried out detailed face-to-face interviews with more than 1,000 respondents in each of the three countries – Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan – where PIPA had asked the same questions in previous polling. Additional polling was carried out in Azerbaijan, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Turkey, and predominantly Muslim regions of Nigeria.
Among the three countries that were polled in 2007, especially Pakistan, where U.S. missile attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets have drawn strong protests, popular support for attacks on civilians increased over the past two years, while rejection of such tactics fell, according to the study.
At the same time, the survey found a growing belief that terrorism is ineffective. The number of Egyptian respondents who said such attacks were "hardly ever effective" rose from 35 percent two years ago to 52 percent last summer, although in Pakistan the percentage was largely unchanged.
Strong approval in all three countries of al-Qaeda's goal of forcing the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from Islamic countries was virtually unchanged from 2007.
Hostility to the U.S. military presence in the Islamic world appears related to the perception of Washington's goals in the region, according to Kull.
"They perceive those bases as there to coerce. (To them), the bases are there as a threat," he said.
Large majorities ranging from 65 percent in Azerbaijan to 87 percent in Egypt and the Palestinian territories said they believed that one major goal was to "weaken and divide Islam"; from 52 percent (Indonesia) to 88 percent (Palestinian territories) cited "spread(ing) Christianity"; and from 62 percent (Pakistan) to around 90 percent (Azerbaijan, Egypt, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan) cited "maintain(ing) control over the oil resources of the Middle East."
Pluralities and majorities ranging from 43 percent in Azerbaijan to 96 percent in Egypt and 90 percent in the Palestinian territories also cited "expanding Israeli borders" as a U.S. goal in the region, although, remarkably, a majority of Palestinians (59 percent) said they believed that Washington also wants to create a Palestinian state.
The poll found that negative views of U.S. objectives have softened somewhat in Indonesia over the past two years but have hardened in Egypt and much more so in Pakistan.
Conversely, more benign U.S. goals, such as spreading democracy, are given little credence, with pluralities agreeing with the statement that "the U.S. favors democracy in Muslim countries, but only if the government is co-operative with the U.S."
"These results show a reason (for the U.S.) not to promote democracy," said Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the Muslim World Initiative, United States Institute of Peace.
On U.S. relations with the Islamic world, an average of only 12 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Washington "mostly shows respect." The rest were split between those who agreed that Washington's disrespect derived from "ignorance and insensitivity" and those who said the U.S. "purposely tries to humiliate the Islamic world."
Kull added that the people interviewed saw al-Qaeda as "a balancer" to the U.S. "larger effort to achieve world domination." He quoted one interviewee as saying "(the U.S.) wants a unipolar system."
However, "If you ask people generally if you think that Sharia law should be applied, there are a lot of people who say yes, but they have their own interpretations of it," said Telhami. But if you ask them if they support a Taliban-like state, then you only get very few – less than 8 percent.
The survey also found strong support for Islamic parties being permitted to participate fully in government. Majorities ranging from 53 percent in Turkey to 83 percent in Pakistan agreed with the proposition that "all people should have the right to organize themselves into political parties and run candidates, including Islamist groups." In Jordan, a 50 percent plurality agreed (compared to 26 percent) who disagreed, and the question was not asked in Egypt.
Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion at the University of Maryland, said the latest survey results were consistent with his own polling in the region, which he conducts annually.
"The only apparent difference is that (the PIPA poll) suggests there is broad agreement with al-Qaeda's objective of spreading Islamic governance. But people have their own interpretation of what that means, and if you ask them if they support Taliban-like states, then the support for that is usually only five or six percent."