What the Muslim world believes, on everything from alcohol to honor killings, in 8 maps, 5 charts

May 2, 2013

A sweeping, 226-page report from the Pew Forum explores attitudes and opinions from Muslim communities around the world. In the process, it turns up some fascinating insights into not just the views held in the "Muslim world" but the wide diversity of those views between Muslim communities. Here, we explore some of those insights using maps and charts.

First, some caveats. The findings here do not represent all Muslims; just as they show diversity of opinion between communities, so, too, is there diversity within communities. After all, a poll of all American Christians would not capture the differences between Baptists and Catholics, much less between New Jersey Catholics and Louisiana Catholics. There is, in other words, no such thing as a monolithic Muslim worldview.

Also, Pew unfortunately did not survey the world's third-largest Muslim population, which is that of India, and does not include Muslims from Iran, China or Saudi Arabia, much less those who now live in the Western world. But it does offer a wide, comprehensive view of many of the world's largest Muslim communities and their opinions.

Now the data.

1. Most want to implement sharia, disagree about what that means

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Majorities of Muslims in wide swaths of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa say they support making sharia the official law of their country. Support is highest in Afghanistan, where 99 percent of respondents support sharia, followed by the Palestinian territories, Malaysia, Niger and Pakistan.

Support is lowest in Central Asia and Europe, where only minorities support sharia. In Turkey, where an Islamist political party has been in power for several years and has implemented some Islam-influenced conservative legislation, only 12 percent say they support sharia.

Pew points out that "sharia law" is not exactly clear, and people who say they support it often disagree on what it means. There is a wide divergence of opinion among people who support sharia, for example, on whether or not corporal punishment for thievery is acceptable, or on social issues such as divorce. In other words, Muslim communities seem to favor the idea of sharia law far more than any specific laws.

2. Most Muslims prefer democracy

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Wide majorities of Muslims in most countries say they prefer democracy over a "strong leader," which is Pew's standard question for determining support for democracy. Support is particularly high in Africa and Southeast Asia. It's more mixed in the Middle East, with opinion varying between countries but generally leaning pro-democracy. Support is weakest in post-Soviet countries, as well as in Pakistan.

What's interesting here is that, in general and with some significant exceptions, people seem to get the kind of government they want. Demand for democracy is high in Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters led peaceful revolutions in 2011, but it's lower in Jordan, a monarchy, and in countries with authoritarian-leaning governments such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

If there is any causal truth to this trend -- in other words, if people are more likely to get the kind of government they want -- then Pakistan's unusually high support for a "strong leader" does not bode well for its troubled democracy.

3. Few support suicide bombings, with exceptions

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Unsurprisingly, most Muslims say that suicide bombings in defense of Islam are never justified; majorities in every Muslim community surveyed reject the tactic. The only exception is the Palestinian Territories, where only 49 percent say they're never justified.

There are many countries in which less than 10 percent of Muslims say suicide bombings can be defensible, particularly in Europe and Central Asia.

There are two countries where more than a third say suicide bombings are sometimes justified: the Palestinian Territories, at an alarmingly high 40 percent, and Afghanistan at 39 percent. Suicide bombings have not been common in Israel-Palestine since the Second Intifada, which ended almost a decade ago. But they are still common in Afghanistan.

I was surprised to see that there does not appear to be a clear, consistent correlation between countries where suicide bombings are prevalent and countries where Muslims condemn or accept them. Suicide bombings are far less likely to be supported in Pakistan than they are in Afghanistan, for example, though they occur in both. And the bombings are widely condemned in Iraq, where they've been causing havoc for years, but receive 29 percent support in Egypt, where they are very rare.

4. Most Muslims reject alcohol, often by wide margins

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I admit that I was surprised by this: Across dozens of surveyed countries, a majority of Muslims in every single one said that drinking alcohol is "morally wrong." The percentage of Muslims who reject alcohol soars well into the 90s in several countries, including in hard-partying Thailand.

The numbers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are generally on par with those in the Middle East. Even in the post-Soviet world, which otherwise appears relatively liberal in Pew's results, majorities condemn alcohol.

Of course, just because people believe something is morally wrong doesn't mean they never do it. As I've written before, the alcohol trade is prosperous even in ultra-conservative and officially booze-free Iran.

5. Mixed views on honor killings 

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Pew asked asked survey respondents "whether honor killings are ever justified as punishment for pre- or extra-marital sex." In the practice, a person is killed -- often by his or her own family -- for having sex out of wedlock. The victim is typically a woman.

Honor killings still happen, and the data reflect why: Majorities of Muslims surveyed rejected the practice in only 14 out of 23 countries. Support for honor killings appears to be highest in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Survey respondents were generally more likely to support honor killings when the "offense" was committed by a woman rather than a man, although the margin is typically quite small. The difference was highest in Jordan, where Muslims are more than twice as likely to oppose an honor killing of a man than of a woman.

6. Wide support for Islamic political parties

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Most people surveyed tended to say that they prefer Islamic political parties to other parties, with exceptions in the post-Soviet world and, surprisingly, in Turkey.

Here's how the map works: Pew asked people if they believe Islamic political parties are better than other parties, worse than other parties, or the same. In the blue countries, the respondents who called Islamic parties "better" outnumbered those who called them "worse." In red countries, the "worse" answers outnumbered those who said Islamic parties are "better." Purple countries found a tie or a marginal lead by Islamic parties.

Islamic political parties are least popular in the Palestinian territories -- perhaps indicating a rejection of Hamas -- as well as in Kazakhstan and Bosnia. They also found little support in Turkey, where an Islamist party has been in power for a decade, a hint of trouble for Turkish Islamist leaders.

Amazingly, after the two years of painful and sometimes violent political turmoil since Islamists took power in Egypt, Egyptians showed more support for Islamic political parties than in any other country surveyed. That's good news for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's hold on power.

7. Majorities in six countries support the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam

A majority of Muslims in several countries say that any Muslim who leaves the faith should be executed, with the share who support this nearing two-thirds in Egypt and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, 78 percent say apostates should be killed.

As I wrote yesterday, the issue of apostasy is a complicated one with its roots in Islam's unique foundational history. But the effect is a deeply chilling one for religious freedom, with atheists and converts often persecuted.

8. Religious conflict seen as a big problem in Pakistan, Nigeria, Tunisia

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In most countries surveyed, less than half of Muslim respondents said religious conflict was a very big problem in the country. But majorities do believe this in Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Niger.

Each of these cases is obviously quite different, and keep in mind that calling conflict a "very big problem" is relative and subjective. Perhaps Tunisians, whose country is actually quite peaceful, answered yes in such large numbers because they are more sensitive to the violence that has come to their country since the 2011 revolution.

Religious violence, sometimes involving attacks with dozens killed, is indeed a big problem in Nigeria and Pakistan. In the latter, Shiite Muslims are most often targeted. The former has struggled with Muslim-Christian violence for years.

But the good news is that most do not see religious conflict as a very big problem in their countries, particularly in post-Soviet states.

9. Most see Islam as compatible with modern society

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Earlier Islamist movements have argued that Muslim communities should return to conservative, traditional practices because their faith is somehow incompatible with modern society. But, with a small handful of notable exceptions, this view does not appear to have taken hold; most Muslims say their religion is not in conflict with modern society.

The three countries where Muslims are more likely than not to see a conflict between their religion and modern society are Bangladesh, Chad and Kenya, all of which have indeed struggled to more fully integrate into the globalized world, although that struggle is not necessarily a function of Islam.

In a number of countries, though, Muslims are about as likely to answer yes to this question as no. Most of these are in Africa, although Pakistanis and Tunisians also appear to be struggling with questions of how to be at once Muslim and a member of the modern world.

Still, wide majorities in many countries say they see no such conflict, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia to Europe. And maybe this is the thing to keep in mind with the overall Pew survey and its findings.

Religion is in many ways subjective, and can be experienced differently within different cultural contexts. Attitudes about its place in the world are, often, self-actualizing: Muslims who see democracy or Islamist parties as preferable tend to put them into power. Muslim communities that accept honor killings tend to get them. And people who believe their faith is in conflict with the broader world are perhaps more likely to see that belief manifest. But that does not mean that Islam and the world are necessarily at odds, any more than it means that sharia must necessarily forbid, say, divorce. Opinions, after all, can and do change.

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