Do 1 in 6 French citizens really support Islamic State?


An image from a video uploaded on YouTube on Aug. 23, 2013, allegedly shows a member of Ussud al-Anbar (Anbar Lions), a Jihadist group affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS). (YouTube via AFP)

The Islamic State extremists are very scary. What's even scarier is how they appear to have significant support from European citizens: The number of foreign fighters descending on Syria and Iraq certainly seems unprecedented and it's hard to predict what the long-term consequences will be.

Because of this concern, a new poll commissioned by Rossiya Segodnya that found surprisingly large levels of support for the Islamic State in France, Britain and Germany has caused a big fuss. It's totally understandable: The idea that 15 percent of France and 7 percent of Britain could have a positive view of Islamic State is horrifying. Even Germany's relatively low level of support (2 percent) is higher than any reasonable person would like to see, given the brutal nature of the group.

But really, is it possible that more than 1 in 6 people in France could "back" Islamic State? When you look at the numbers closely, something doesn't add up.

First off, let's consider who would support the Islamic State: Sunni Muslims with extremist views. Yes, it's true that there may be some non-Muslims who support them, but we can reasonably expect the vast majority to be Muslims.

So, let's start with considering the number of Muslims in France. That in itself is a tricky task, as the French state prohibits censuses that ask people about their religious beliefs, but a number of independent polls and surveys have asked that question. In 2010, Pew estimated that 7.5 percent of the French population was Muslim (that figure would grow to 10.3 percent in 2030, Pew estimated). Other estimates have generally been lower than that, although the CIA World Factbook gives a range of 5 to 10 percent. Maybe the Muslim population is larger than these estimates, we can't say for certain, but even so, it seems unlikely to be significantly larger.

In turn, let's consider the British Muslim population. In a 2011 census, the United Kingdom's Islamic population was found to make up 4.4 percent of the general populace. This seems to fit in with other, more recent polls: In the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, just 6 percent gave a religion other than Christianity. Meanwhile, in Germany, at least 1.9 percent of the population described themselves as Muslim in a recent census, but Pew gives a higher estimate of 5 percent in 2010.

There are margins of errors in surveys and polls. However, even after taking these few percentage point differences into account, for these results to be accurate the vast majority, if not all, of the Muslim population of France and Britain would probably need to support the Islamic State.

The diverse nature of the Islamic communities in these countries makes that very hard to image: Why would Shia Muslims support a movement that would kill them, for example? And there are many non-religious Muslims in both countries who do not follow extremist views who have little reason to support Islamic State. (A side note: The numbers for Germany are more reasonable, to be fair, though still perhaps high.)

Other polls have shown that countries with high Muslim populations tend to be extremely worried about extremism. One Pew poll from 2009 found that 52 percent of British Muslims, 35 percent of French Muslims and 29 percent of German Muslims were concerned about Islamic extremism's rise; the vast majority of Muslims in all three countries said that suicide bombings could never be acceptable. Another from 2009 found that just 1 percent of the total population of France and Britain had "a lot" or "some" confidence in Osama bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs.

It's implausible that virtually every Muslim in France and Britain has a positive view of Islamic State. And while there may be some non-Muslims who support the group, it's hard to imagine they would form any sizable number (ICM Research, the group that conducted the poll, was unable to break down their results along religious lines when The Post requested).

ICM Research hasn't provided a lot of detail about the methodology in their press release, but they were able to offer some more to The Post. Our resident pollster, Scott Clement, says that while the methodology isn't perfect (the survey was largely conducted with calls over land lines, meaning that cellphone-reliant adults could be undersampled), it wasn't terrible either. Clement suggests that respondents could be misinterpreting the question or simply ignorant of what the Islamic State is: Hearing "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" and thinking it is just talking about the country of Iraq. Given the continues naming issues that Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL has had, such confusion is understandable to a degree.

There's little doubt that there is a disturbing amount of support for Islamic State and other extremist groups in Europe and beyond. There are estimated to be thousands of foreigners fighting for various extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and the Islamic States' has been able to make an impact right at the very heart of European capitals. There's clearly a depressing, disturbing level of alienation among many Western Islamic communities.

But the idea that the entire Muslim communities of France and the United Kingdom (and then some of the non-Muslim community also) supports Islamic State makes no sense. And the furor about it could help to alienate the West's best hope in the fight against Islamic extremists: Western Muslims.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read World

world

worldviews

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Next Story
Ishaan Tharoor · August 27, 2014