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Do Most Muslims Support al Qaeda?

Do supporters of al Qaeda make up only a tiny fraction of the Muslim world? This is what we want to believe and what American leaders, from President Bush on down, have insisted since 9/11. So we have strained to ignore the Osama bin Laden T-shirts and other anecdotal evidence suggesting that the story might not be so simple. Now there are disquieting data from a survey released last month by the respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The survey covered four Muslim countries—Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia—that are closely allied with the U.S. and that are, on average, slightly more liberal politically than the mean of Muslim countries. Many aspects of the poll’s findings are fascinating, starting with what it reveals about support for al Qaeda. (Please note, all numbers below are rounded.)

Respondents were given three choices by which to describe their feelings about al Qaeda. At one end they could say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans and do not share its attitudes toward the U.S.” At the opposite end they could say that they “support its attacks on Americans and share its attitudes toward the U.S.” Or they could chose a middle option, namely to say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans but share many of its attitudes toward the U.S.”

How did they respond? Twenty-six percent said they opposed al Qaeda’s attacks and its attitudes. Fifteen percent said they supported both the attacks and the attitudes behind them. Twenty-three percent said they opposed the attacks but tended to share the attitudes.

That 15 percent of the population of these U.S.-aligned countries supports al Qaeda’s deeds is disturbing, to say the least. Moreover, adding together those who support al Qaeda’s attacks and those who oppose the attacks but support its attitudes shows that, by a ratio of three to two, most respondents said they shared al Qaeda’s attitudes toward the U.S.

The arithmetically alert will have noticed that 26 plus 23 plus 15 does not add up to 100 percent. The explanation for this is that fully 37 percent of the polling sample did not respond to this question or said that they did not know what their opinion was. If we set aside this group entirely, then among the rest (that is, those who did respond one way or another) the proportion saying they supported al Qaeda’s deeds rises to 24 percent. And the combined proportion that supports al Qaeda’s attitudes toward the U.S. rises to 60 percent.

But other questions in the survey yielded contradictory information. When respondents were asked if they approve of attacks on civilians in the U.S., 78 percent disapproved, while only 5 percent approved and 8 percent said they had mixed feelings. As if this picture weren’t muddy enough, the highest rate of disapproval of such attacks—91 percent—was among Egyptians. But it was also Egyptians who registered the highest rates of sympathy for al Qaeda. Excluding those who didn’t answer, about 30 percent of Egyptians approved of al Qaeda’s “attacks on Americans” and about two-thirds said they shared many of its attitudes.

Steven Kull, the chief of the polling team, told me that he is striving to interpret these contradictory data through sophisticated statistical techniques and the observation of focus groups. Whatever the interpretation, it seems that attitudes in the Muslim world toward al Qaeda are more complicated than we would wish.


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