Often U.S. policy-makers and other intellectuals draw an analogy between the Cold War and the current “global war on terror” and recommend analogous strategies, because, after all, both conflicts battled over people’s hearts and minds. But results from Gallup’s surveys in the Muslim world point to important differences between the two conflicts and real risks in confusing them by applying similar strategies.
At the heart of the Cold War analogy is the belief that religious fanaticism fuels extremism and therefore replacing Muslims’ worldview with Western liberalism is the path to victory against terrorism. To begin to understand the danger of this diagnosis, we must first understand the factors that do and do not drive sympathy for violence.
As a starting point, Muslims do not hold a monopoly on extremist views. While 6% of Americans think attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified,” in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4%. In Europe, Muslims in Paris and London were no more likely than were their counterparts in the general public to believe attacks on civilians are ever justified and at least as likely to reject violence, even for a “noble cause.”
After analyzing survey data representing more than 90% of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority saw the 9/11 attacks as morally justified. Even more significant, there was no correlation between level of religiosity and extremism among respondents. Among the 7% of the population that fits in the politically radicalized category — those who saw the 9/11 attacks as completely justifiable and have an unfavorable view of the United States — 94% said religion is an important part of their daily lives, compared with 90% among those in the moderate majority. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.
Gallup probed respondents further and actually asked both those who condoned and condemned extremist acts why they said what they did. The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, many of those who condemned terrorism cited humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. For example, one woman said, “Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world,” paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Quran.
On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condoned the attacks of 9/11 cited the Quran for justification. Instead, this group’s responses were markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent said, “The U.S. government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing.”
The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety. For example, the politically radicalized often cite “occupation and U.S. domination” as their greatest fear for their country and only a small minority of them agree the United States would allow people in the region to fashion their own political future or that it is serious about supporting democracy in the region. Also, among this group’s top responses was the view that to better relations with the Muslim world, the West should respect Islam and stop imposing its beliefs and policies. In contrast, moderates most often mentioned economic problems as their greatest fear for their country, and along with respecting Islam, they see economic support and investments as a way for the West to better relations. Moderates are also more likely than the politically radicalized to say the United States is serious about promoting democracy.
While the politically radicalized are as likely as the moderate majority to say better relations with the West is of personal concern to them, they are much less likely to believe the West reciprocates this concern and therefore much less likely to believe improved relations will ever come. In short, perceptions of being under siege characterize those who sympathize with extremism.
Several thoughts occur to me. I am also not an expert on these matters so I must rely on readings to try to figure out what is going on and what policy I can reasonably support.
1. I am averse to ‘global truths’ because I have never found them adequate to explain human behaviors or produce accurate planning information.
2. History often shows the deficiency of such approaches after the fact, which I will not explore on this post. Such perceptions are used to confirm a priori beliefs instead of leading to questions to be solved. Perhaps this is a matter of temperament for some, or calculation for others.
3. In a speech, asking questions of nuance is very hum drum and has no punch or ring to it. Advertising needs catchy stimuli to work, so works on our limbic system the most dramatically. As a way to develop policy…not so good.