The Region: Who ‘likes’ Islamist groups? (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By BARRY RUBIN 12/20/10)
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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
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
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-
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
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. (© 1995 - 2010 The Jerusalem Post. 12/20/10)
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