A number of well-intentioned people, including President Barack Obama, have claimed that the Islamic State and other militant radical groups have practically no support among Muslims. Indeed, in a televised interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in response to a question of why his administration avoided using the phrase, “Islamic terrorists,” the president responded the vast overwhelming majority of Muslims reject radical interpretations of Islam, distinguishing between radical extremists and the remaining “99.9 percent of Muslims.”
I understand the desire to believe this and the optimism expressed in such a claim, but what is the evidence for it?
Polls, as imperfect as they may be, certainly do not show this to be the case. A majority of Muslims do reject radical extremism, but the numbers that do support extremism, as found in polling, are nowhere near the tiny minority claimed by President Obama and others. This is significant because when we are considering even small percentages of the Muslim world, then we are discussing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people.
Consider the efforts of the respected Pew Research Center, a non-partisan polling organization that carries out highly regarded surveys of religion in a number of Muslim majority countries. In their 2013 poll of Muslims in eleven countries, they found only 57% had an unfavorable view of Al- Qaeda and only 51% had an unfavorable view of the Taliban.
This is nowhere near the 99.9% claim of Muslims who supposedly reject extremism as argued by President Obama and others. Instead, it is only a little bit over half of the Muslim populations surveyed, which include populations in the nations of Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, Senegal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. Indeed, 13% of respondents declared outright support or favorability for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while others claimed they “didn’t know” how they felt about the groups or refused to answer.
The Pew numbers showed remarkable consistency when they came out with their 2015 poll that focused on Muslim responses to the “Islamic State” (e.g. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). In an average of ten primarily Muslim nations sampled in that poll, Pew demonstrated alarmingly high percentages of either outright support for IS or many respondents who “didn’t know” how they felt about the terrorist organization. In heavily populated countries, the Islamic State had the highest levels of support. In Pakistan, for example, 9% expressed outright support for IS, while 62% claimed they didn’t know how they felt about the group, this despite widespread awareness of the Islamic State in Pakistani madrassas, media, and in popular culture. Consequently, 72% of those surveyed in Pakistan either supported or did not know how they felt about the Islamic State while only 28% outright condemned the group. Again, this is a far cry from the 99.9% of Muslims that we are otherwise told reject extremism. Support for extremism in Pakistan may be even higher than these numbers suggest, as the Taliban, with deep roots in Pakistan, and Islamic State are enemies, so it is possible that some of those condemning the Islamic State are doing so because they are supporters of the Taliban.
Moreover, the same poll showed troubling results in other Muslim nations with large populations. In Nigeria, for example, 34% of respondents either saw the Islamic State favorably or “didn’t know” how they felt about them. In Turkey the number was 27%, in Indonesia 22%, in Malaysia 36%, and in Senegal it was 40%. It is true that in much smaller Muslim majority countries higher percentages condemned the Islamic State. In Lebanon, for example, 99% of respondents saw IS unfavorably. But to put this into perspective, Lebanon has a total population of fewer than 5 million people, with many of them non-Muslims (e.g. around 40% are Christians), while Pakistan has a population of around 188 million people (with over 96% of them Muslims). As a result, once you calculate the overall numbers of the total populations represented in the ten primarily Muslim nations in the 2015 Pew poll, as I have previously done here, only around 55% outright find the Islamic State unfavorable while around 45% either find them favorable or “don’t know” how they feel about them.
Again, this is not supportive of the claim that 99.9% of Muslims reject extremism, or of the argument that only a tiny minority of Muslims support extremism. To the contrary, based on these polls anyway, only around 55% (still a majority, to be clear) condemn extremist groups outright while disturbingly high minority percentages either outright support them or “don’t know” how they feel about the group (for a variety of possible reasons).
One may argue that the Pew polls are somehow flawed in their methodology, or that polls in general cannot be trusted, but we really do not have a better way of determining how a population feels about various issues than scientific polling (for all its warts). I should also point out that it is not just Pew reporting such findings, as a number of other polls have demonstrated similarly depressing results.
Consider the 2015 survey by ORB International (the U.K. representative of WIN/Gallup International) which found that 22% of Syrians see the Islamic State as having a positive influence on their country, which 35% said the same about Al-Nusra, which represents Al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War. These numbers are undoubtedly influenced by the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and the battle to overthrow Assad’s government, but they nevertheless do nothing to support the claim that 99.9% of Muslims reject extremism. See http://www.opinion.co.uk/article.php?s=orbiiacss-poll-in-iraq-and-syria-gives-rare-insight-into-public-opinion
One might also consider the highly controversial poll from ICM research found that nearly 16% of those surveyed in France expressed support for the Islamic State. The Washington Post investigated the methodology of the poll and found it generally sound, arguing that perhaps respondents did not fully understand the questions that were asked of them while nevertheless acknowledging that, whatever the actual numbers, support for the Islamic State is too high. Similarly, whatever the flaws of this poll, it does not offer support for the 99.9% claim either. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/08/27/do-1-in-6-french-citizens-really-support-islamic-state/
A representative sampling of other polls that work against the 99.9% claim include the following:
A 2011 MacDonald Laurier Institute Poll in which 35% of Canadian Muslims would not repudiate al-Qaeda- http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/much-good-news-and-some-worrying-results-in-new-study-of-muslim-public-opinion-in-canada/
A 2011 Gallup poll in which 51% of Pakistanis grieved over the death of Osama bin Laden. http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/05/majority_of_our_pakistani_alli.html
A 2015 Hurriyet Daily News / Metropoll that found that 20% of Turks supported the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo staffers and cartoonists. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/metropoll-42-turkish-public-believe-muslims-are-real-victims-charlie-hebdo-attack-1486355
A 2015 poll by The Polling Company CSP Poll showed that 37% of Muslim-Americans viewed Islamic State (ISIS) beliefs as Islamic or correct. (43% disagree). 33% felt the same about Al-Qaeda http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/150612-CSP-Polling-Company-Nationwide-Online-Survey-of-Muslims-Topline-Poll-Data.pdf
And so on and so on…there are several dozen such polls over the past decade that reveal disturbing statistics among many Muslim populations the world over on matters related to religious extremism.
So it’s definitely not polls of Muslims that are the basis for the claim that only a tiny and insignificant percentage support extremism, or that 99.9% reject Islamic extremism. In all the cases listed above, and in the dozens of polls I have not bothered to include in the sampling here (but which are also available online), it is true that a majority of Muslims typically condemn extremism, but the minority figures who support extremism are disturbingly too high in a population group of 1.7 billion people.
What other evidence might one point to as a justification for the 99.9% claim? Well, anecdotal evidence certainly does not seem to support it either.
The powerful online presence of the Islamic State, and its ability to win supports and draw recruits, has been well documented. There are, reportedly, around 200,000 supportive tweets, Facebook posts, and other types of online postings made on behalf of the Islamic State, reaching up to 100 million people per day (according to high end estimates) http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/jun/25/stanley-mcchrystal/stanley-mcchrystal-isis-reaches-100-million-people/
Largely in response to the Islamic State’s online efforts, tens of thousands of foreign Muslims have fled to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, despite the efforts of the global community to prevent them. Each of them had a support network in their home countries, as well as the countries they traveled through, that made it possible. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/world/middleeast/thousands-enter-syria-to-join-isis-despite-global-efforts.html
The Islamic State has withstood the efforts of a much celebrated (by western politicians) 65 nation coalition (which includes the power of the U.S. military) dedicated to destroying the Islamic State. This effort began over a year ago and in that time the Islamic State has only grown in size and range, expanding into several other countries beyond Syria and Iraq. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/11/obama-does-have-anti-isis-plan-take-out-bastards
Among the many countries (beyond Syria and Iraq) where the Islamic State now claims militant supporters and affiliates, willing to wage war and carry out acts of terrorism on their behalf, are Libya, where Islamic State fighters publicly beheaded 21 Christians and posted a video of the massacre online. Due to the chaos that followed the effects of the Arab Spring, Islamic State supporters have been able to control significant parts of the nation. Egypt, where Islamic State affiliates routinely carry out significant attacks against the Egyptian military. Afghanistan, where the Islamic State is training warriors and carrying out pitched battles against various Afghan militias and the Taliban. Nigeria, where the infamous Boko Haram, who has slaughtered thousands, has declared their obedience to and support for the caliphate of the Islamic State. Pakistan, where a number of militant Taliban splinter groups have declared their support for the Islamic State as have many students and clerics associated with hardline Pakistani madrassas. Algeria, where the so-called “Soldiers of the Caliphate” rejected their affiliation with Al-Qaeda and instead pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, even beheading a French citizen after France participated in airstrikes against the Islamic State. The Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group dedicated to carving out an Islamic province in the country has recently pledged itself to the Islamic State and carried out a number of violent attacks on Christians and the government. And Jordan, where the Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad has dedicated themselves to the Islamic State and is believed to have thousands of members.
This level of international support certainly does not support the 99.9% claim.
Still a Majority
But again, while this essay rejects the idea that the Islamic State had practically no support in the Islamic world, which has been repeated by many western politicians, I am not suggesting that most (or a majority of) Muslims agree with the extremists in their faith, only that the extremists represent a much more sizable and troubling minority than many well intentioned westerners are willing to admit.
I witness the efforts of Muslims who oppose extremism every day. I am friends on social media with brilliant Muslim academics who make clear their genuine opposition to violent extremism as represented by the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other groups. I have followed along with the efforts of the Birmingham based Mufti Abu Layth al-Maliki, for example, who is affiliated with the British Islamic Council and uses social media platforms to combat extremism. He openly discusses issues ranging from heavy topics like the death penalty for apostasy to seemingly smaller, but still important, issues like the permissibility of Muslims to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. While it is disheartening to see many hardline Muslims push back against his encouraging teachings on these matters, it is heartening to see him leading this effort with such genuine conviction and often good humor as well.
Moreover, one extraordinarily talented young European Muslim recently wrote an important essay that, in part, highlights the efforts of Muslim scholars on the beliefs of the Islamic State, issuing formal and well publicized fatwas condemning the organization signed by hundreds of influential Muslim scholars. The essay, to be published in late 2016 in an encyclopedia I am co-editing on Pivotal Events in Religious History, serves as an important rebuttal to those who argue Muslims have not issued significant condemnations of the Islamic State and groups of their ilk. They have. Indeed, just recently over 70,000 Indian Muslim clerics issued a fatwa condemning terrorism.
There are other examples I could mention, including my vague remembrance of Muslim U.S. Marines I once served with, as well as other Muslims I have known during the course of my life that by all appearances did not see their faith as incompatible with western values. Or the recent efforts of Muslim scholars to issue a new study Qur’an that provides annotation that attempts to interpret the more militant verses of the Qur’an in ways that are compatible with both traditional Islamic jurisprudence and modern humanistic values. These efforts, as well as many others, are all important and much needed to combat extremism within the Muslim world at the moment, even if their effectiveness is ultimately still to be determined.
It seems to me that it does Muslims leading efforts to combat extremism a disservice to pretend, as some do, that Islamic radicalism is not a significant problem or that practically nobody (e.g. 0.01%) supports the Islamic State when all the evidence suggests otherwise, that there is indeed significant support for extremism in parts of the Muslim world. It denies reality and does nothing to address the problems described above, or aid those Muslims who are making efforts to combat a very real problem among their co-religionists and one that ultimately impacts us all, Muslim or non-Muslim.