There’s a lot of interesting material in the Pew Research Center´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 often not very good, so here is mine.
For example, in evaluating attitudes toward Hamas and Hizballah, Pew says that they receive “mixed ratings from Muslim publics … [while] opinions of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, are consistently negative….”
Really? Well, in Jordan, for example, 55 percent say they like Hezbollah (against 43 percent negative) while 60 percent are favorable (compared to 34 percent 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. Hezbollah is a Shia 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 — most of the pro-Hamas people, though not all of them, are making a choice between the nationalist and Islamist forces — is pretty low.
Why do people support these groups? Obviously, one reason is that they fight Israel (a country with which Jordan is at peace), but sympathy for the revolutionary Islamist aspect of Hamas and Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah 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-Qaeda. In Jordan, 34 percent are favorable toward that terrorist group while 62 percent are negative. That outcome, however, contrary to Pew’s spin on the numbers, is not at all encouraging. Remember that al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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 despite the fact that it has murdered Jordanians, and roughly half or more like revolutionary Islamist organizations 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 percent like Hezbollah (66 percent don’t like), 49 percent are favorable toward Hamas (48 percent are negative), and 20 percent smile (72 percent frown) at al-Qaeda. This is more encouraging than the figures in Jordan. But remember that not only is Egypt solidly Sunni but the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of Islamism in Egypt, don’t like Hezbollah because it is a Shia group. The Egyptian government has accused Hezbollah 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 are along sectarian lines. While 94 percent of Shia Muslims support Hezbollah (only 5 percent are negative), 84 percent of Sunnis are unfavorable (only 12 percent are positive) toward it. Christians are 87 percent negative (and only 10 percent positive). This shows why Hezbollah cannot just take over Lebanon itself, but of course Lebanon is largely being taken over by Iranian-Syrian power plus their local collaborators, of which Hezbollah is only one of the elements.
What are the Lebanese figures on al-Qaeda? Three percent positive and 94 percent negative! Why? Because the Christians and Sunnis don’t want that kind of regime, while the Shias, who tend to support Hizballah’s Islamism, know that al-Qaeda hates Shias.