Two years after proclaiming a new “caliphate” for Muslims in the Middle East, the Islamic State is seeing a steep slide in support among the young Arab men and women it most wants to attract, a new poll shows.
Overwhelming majorities of Arab teens and young adults now strongly oppose the terrorist group, the survey suggests, with nearly 80 percent ruling out any possibility of supporting the Islamic State, even if it were to renounce its brutal tactics.
A year ago, about 60 percent expressed that view, according to the 16-country survey released Tuesday.
“Tacit support for the militant group is declining,” concludes a summary report by the poll’s sponsor, ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm that has tracked young Arabs’ views in annual surveys for the past eight years. Other recent surveys have found similarly high disapproval rates for the Islamic State among general populations in Muslim-majority countries.
The new poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 3,500 respondents ages 18 to 24, suggests that young Arabs are both increasingly fearful of the terrorist group and less swayed by its propaganda, compared with previous years. More than half the participants ranked the Islamic State as the No. 1 problem facing the Middle East, and 3 out of 4 said they believed that the group would ultimately fail in its quest to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The survey suggests that religious fervor plays a secondary role, at best, when young Arabs do decide to sign up with the Islamic State. When asked why Middle Easterners join the group, the participants listed joblessness or poor economic prospects as the top reason. Only 18 percent cited religious views — a “belief that their interpretation of Islam is superior to others” — and nearly as many picked sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites as the chief motivating factor.
Young Arabs from countries with high unemployment rates were more likely to list economic hardship as a top reason for wanting to join the Islamic State, the survey found. The results align with the findings of other researchers who have noted that many recruits use religion mostly as a rationalization.
“Members do not say they join for economic reasons, but other factors they identify — including ones related to religious reasons — could be a proxy of economic or social factors,” Hassan Hassan, an Islamic State expert at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in an analysis of the survey’s findings. “In other words, members may consciously or unconsciously conceal true motives.”
The survey, taken in January and February of this year, also shows growing disillusionment with the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011. Of the 16 countries in the poll, only in Egypt did a majority describe their homeland as better off now than it was five years ago. Overall, the share of survey participants who said they have seen improving conditions since the uprisings dropped from 72 percent in 2012 to 36 percent this year.
Accordingly, respondents tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state. For the fifth straight year, young Arabs picked the United Arab Emirates as the top country to live in, with a 22 percent ranking, followed by the United States, with 15 percent.
Arab youth were generally mixed in their views of the United States. More than 60 percent saw Washington as an ally, with the strongest positive rankings coming from Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. By contrast, more than 90 percent of Iraqis regarded the United States as an enemy. Dislike for Washington was nearly as high in Yemen and in the Palestinian territories, and more than half of Lebanese youth said they saw the United States as an enemy.
The margin of error for the survey was 1.65 percent.