The Region: Who ‘likes’ Islamist groups?

A recent Pew poll on public attitudes toward Islamism in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey shows that the radical Islamist side is winning.

hamas man 311 (photo credit: AP)
hamas man 311
(photo credit: AP)
There’s a lot of interesting material in the Pew Foundation’s latest poll of the Middle East, a survey that focuses on attitudes toward Islamism and revolutionary Islamist groups. The analysis that accompanies the poll, however, is not very good, so here is mine.
For example, in evaluating attitudes toward Hamas and Hizbullah, Pew says that they receive “mixed ratings from Muslim publics [while] opinions of al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, are consistently negative.”
Really? Well, in Jordan, for example, 55 percent say they like Hizbullah (against 43% negative) while 60% are favorable (compared to 34% negative) toward Hamas. Yet this is even more impressive than the figures indicate. Jordan is a staunchly Sunni country whose government opposes the ambitions of Iran and Syria.
Hizbullah is a Shi’ite group which also is an agent of Iran and Syria. For a majority to praise that organization – conscious of strong government disapproval – is phenomenal.
The figures for Hamas can be more easily explained by the Palestinian connection. Yet the difference between the two in terms of public opinion isn’t that great. And it also suggests that support for Fatah and the Palestinian Authority must be very low in Jordan.
Remember that the majority of Jordanians are also of Palestinian origin.
Why do people support these groups? Obviously, one reason is that they fight Israel but sympathy for the revolutionary Islamist aspect of Hamas and Hizbullah must be a huge factor here. Indeed, there is not necessarily any conflict between these two aspects. The Islamists are considered to be better fighters than the nationalists, while making war for the next generation is more attractive to those backing Hamas and Hizbullah than is making peace. Finally, let’s not forget that both of these groups are very anti-Western and anti- American.
BUT NOW let’s look at al-Qaida. In Jordan, 34% are favorable toward that terrorist group while 62% are negative. That outcome, however, contrary to Pew’s spin on the numbers, is not at all encouraging.
Remember that al-Qaida carried out the September 11 attacks. Moreover, it has conducted terrorist attacks in neighboring Iraq and, most important of all, in Jordan itself. The fact that one-third of Jordanians – whose country is generally considered the most pro-Western in the Arab world – like al-Qaida is chilling indeed. Then, too, this preference cannot be attributed to anti-Israel sentiment.
So one-third of Jordan’s people favor the most extremist terrorist group, even though it has murdered Jordanians, and roughly half or more like revolutionary Islamist organization that are clients of their own country’s nominally biggest threats. What does that say about the hopes for moderation and stability? Turning to Egypt, “only” 30% like Hizbullah (66% don’t like), 49% are favorable toward Hamas (48% are negative) and 20% smile (72% frown) at al-Qaida. This is more encouraging. But remember that not only is Egypt solidly Sunni but the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of Islamism in Egypt, don’t like Hizbullah because it is a Shi’ite group.
The Egyptian government has accused Hizbullah of trying to foment terrorism in Egypt. The Egyptian government also views Hamas as a threat.
Roughly speaking, one-fifth of Egyptians applaud the most extreme Islamist terrorist group, while around one-third back revolutionary Islamists abroad. This doesn’t tell us what proportion of Egyptians want an Islamist government at home, but it is an indicator.
IN LEBANON attitudes divide along sectarian lines.
While 94% of Shi’ites support Hizbullah (only 5% are negative), 84% of Sunnis are unfavorable (only 12% are positive). Christians are 87% negative (and only 10% positive). This shows why Hizbullah cannot just take over Lebanon itself, but of course Lebanon is largely being taken over by Iranian-Syrian power plus its local collaborators, of which Hizbullah is only one.
What are the Lebanese figures on al-Qaida? Three percent positive and 94% negative! Why? Because the Christians and Sunnis don’t want that kind of regime, while the Shi’ites, who tend to support Hizbullah’s Islamism, knows that al-Qaida hates Shi’ites.
Finally, here’s a word on Turkey where public opinion is the opposite of that prevailing in Jordan. In Turkey, only 5% like Hizbullah (74% negative), just 9% like Hamas (67% unfavorable) and merely 4% are positive (74% are hostile) on al-Qaida.
Yet the current Turkish Islamist regime is a big supporter of Hamas and Hizbullah. Clearly, supporting revolutionary Islamist groups – either through Islamism or the fact they are fighting Israel – is simply not popular in Turkey. Hamas and Hizbullah don’t do much better than al-Qaida.
So, Turkey’s people are more moderate than its government, while Egypt’s and Jordan’s are more radical than theirs.
Let’s look at two other indicators of attitudes: Islamism versus “modernizers” and attitudes toward Islamic punishments. The first point of interest in terms of the great ideological battle is that large proportions of people in these countries deny that such a struggle even exists. Only 20% in Jordan, 31% in Egypt, 53% in Lebanon,and 52% in Turkey acknowledge that there is a struggle.
Why is this? One can’t definitively tell. I suspect they may want to avoid taking sides since they live in countries where democracy doesn’t really prevail and authorities punish dissenters. Or perhaps they think that the Islamists are more capable of conducting modernization or that the current regime is sufficiently Islamic.
Nevertheless, those who said that such a struggle does exist (remember this is between only 20% in Jordan to 53% in Lebanon) took the following sides: Jordan, 48-38 modernizers; Egypt, 59-27 Islamists; Lebanon, 84-15 modernists; Turkey, 74-11 modernists.
OTHER THAN the horrifying figures in Turkey, which one day might be cited to explain an Islamist revolution there, the numbers in Jordan are pretty scary as well. Almost 40% favor an Islamist regime and they know that doesn’t mean the current monarchy.
How to explain the other two countries? In Lebanon, Hizbullah is seen as a champion of the Shi’ite community. It is supported for “ethnic” reasons more than because people want an Islamic republic. Of course, Sunnis have to take into account that if Lebanon were to become an Islamic republic it would be a Shi’ite one.
As for Turkey, while the ruling AKP government has a hard core of supporters at roughly 30%, even most of these people don’t want an Islamist state, just a more Islamic-oriented one.
Finally there is the attitude toward Islamic punishments.
Again, the outcome in Egypt and Jordan is very revealing. In Egypt, 82% favor the punishment of stoning for those who commit adultery, 77% would like to see whippings and hands cut off for robbery and 84% favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.
I would expect that these attitudes don’t differ much from public opinion in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
The figures for Jordan are roughly the same: 70% (stoning), 58% (whipping/amputation), 86% (death for converts).
Again, the numbers for Lebanon and Turkey are quite different: Lebanon, 23% (stoning), 13% (whipping/amputation), 6% (death for converts); Turkey, 16% (stoning); 13% (whipping/amputation), 5% (death for converts). Yet Turkey and Lebanon are ruled by regimes which are in the Islamist camp, that is, they view themselves as close to the Iran-Syria- Hamas-Hizbullah alliance.
What all of this analysis shows is that a future Islamist revolution in Egypt and Jordan is quite possible. So overwhelming is the support for this movement that there is nothing the West can do except ensure the current governments remain in power. As for Lebanon, there is a strong basis for resisting incorporation into the Iran-Syria empire, and in Turkey – where there are free elections – the current regime might well be overthrown.
Remember that Egypt, Jordan and other Arab governments, notably Saudi Arabia, are so opposed to Iran not only because they hate that country’s non-Arab, Shi’ite, radical Islamist standpoint, but also since they fear its growing power will set off revolutions within their own countries.
The bottom line is that in all four of these countries the radical Islamist side is winning. And the West is basically asleep in recognizing that threat.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.