Osama bin Laden's standing has dropped significantly in some pivotal Muslim countries, while support for suicide bombings and other acts of violence has "declined dramatically," according to a new survey released yesterday.
Predominantly Muslim populations in a sampling of six North African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries share to a "considerable degree" Western concerns about Islamic extremism, according to the poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization.
"Most Muslim publics are expressing less support for terrorism than in the past. Confidence in Osama bin Laden has declined markedly in some countries, and fewer believe suicide bombings that target civilians are justified in the defense of Islam," the poll concluded.
The one exception is attitudes toward suicide bombings of U.S and Western targets in Iraq, a subject on which Muslims were divided. Roughly half of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan and Morocco said such attacks are justifiable, while sizable majorities in Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia disagreed. Yet, support for suicide bombings in Iraq still declined by as much as 20 percent compared with a poll taken last year.
The results, which also reveal widespread support for democracy, show how profoundly opinions have changed in parts of the Muslim world since Pew took similar surveys in recent years. The poll attributed the difference in attitudes toward extremism to both the terrorist attacks in Muslim nations and the passage of time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In May 2003, many Muslims "saw a worldwide threat to Islam and [bin Laden] represented opposition to the West and the United States," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center and project director. "Tempers have since cooled."
The poll results are a rare piece of good news for the Bush administration, which has faced difficulties seeing gains in its two top foreign policy goals -- combating terrorism and promoting democracy in the Islamic world.
"These are eye-catching results, but not surprising," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University. "Muslims, like non-Muslims, are plugged into the world. . . . It is one thing to be caught up in the supposed glamour of attacking the superpower or global bully, but it is quite another to have to pay the consequences economically, politically -- not to mention personally. This is what has happened in places like Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey, where many people now see extremist Islam as a threat to their lives, not a fantasy game of kick Uncle Sam."
The survey, conducted from April through mid-June, before the London bombings, polled 17,000 people in the six Muslim-dominated countries and in 11 major Western and Asian nations, including the United States. They were asked about their attitudes toward Islam, Muslim nations and extremist violence. More than 6,200 interviews in Muslim countries were conducted in person, while interviews in the West and in Asia were done by telephone and in person.
The new poll also found that growing majorities or pluralities of Muslims now say that democracy can work in their countries and is not just a Western ideology. Support for democracy was in the 80 percent range in Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco. It was selected by 43 percent in Pakistan and 48 percent in Turkey -- the largest blocks of respondents in both countries because significant numbers were unsure.
"They are not just paying lip service. They are saying they specifically want a fair judiciary, freedom of expression and more than one party in elections. It wasn't just a vague concept," Kohut said. "U.S. and Western ideas about democracy have been globalized and are in the Muslim world."
At the same time, most Muslims surveyed said they think Islam is playing an increasing role in their politics, a development they view as a positive shift in response to economic problems, growing immorality and concern about Western influence. Jordan was the only exception.
The survey results indicate that growing numbers of Muslims differentiate between what they consider the peaceful influence of Islamic values in politics and the use of religion to justify attacks. "The people who see Islam playing an important role in political life are the ones most worried about extremism," Kohut said.
Yet solid majorities in five of the six Muslim countries surveyed -- Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey -- also now have unfavorable views of the United States. In the sixth, Morocco, views are divided. The governments in all six countries are U.S. allies and receive U.S. aid.
The survey found only 2 percent of the people polled in Lebanon and 7 percent in Turkey expressing confidence that bin Laden would "do the right thing regarding world affairs." The proportion that expressed confidence in the al Qaeda leader dropped from almost half to about a quarter in Morocco, and from 58 percent to 37 percent in Indonesia. Bin Laden's standing went up slightly in Pakistan, to 51 percent, and in Jordan, to 60 percent.
Three factors, Kohut said, contributed to the notable shift in views on bin Laden and suicide bombings: incidents of terrorism in Muslim countries, an increase in positive feelings about events at home, and the passage of time since the 2003 survey conducted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The decline in support for suicide bombings was largest in Indonesia, which has witnessed deadly bombings at a Marriott hotel in Jakarta and at a Bali tourist hotel -- attacks that seriously affected tourism and foreign investment. Jordan was the only country where the majority surveyed -- 57 percent -- still support terrorist acts in defense of Islam, possibly because the majority Palestinian population is tied to the conflict with Israel, Kohut said.
But Norton also noted: "As the events in London show, it does not take too many people to cause big problems. If only 1/10,000 of 1 percent [of the Muslim world] is inclined to terrorism, that is still 1,200 potential mass killers."
One of the starkest findings was the divide in views on religion. Most of those surveyed in nine Western countries -- including the United States, Britain, Canada, France and Russia -- said they have favorable views of Muslims, although the non-Muslims surveyed were more likely to say Islam is more violent than Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism.
The Muslims surveyed had mixed views on Christians, and anti-Jewish sentiment was "endemic," the survey reported.