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Who Speaks for Islam? Part 3a- What Makes a Radical?


| Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b |Part 4 | Part 5 |

*Amad is taking over for Chapter 3 and 4. Cross-posted on Dailykos & Streetprophets

See important notes on survey methodology at the bottom of this post.

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The so-called “war against terrorism” has been raging for more than six years, yet the author argue that Muslim extremism and violence continues to spread and grow all over the world.

The Osama bin Ladens of the world have turned a once-popular jihad – a struggle in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation supported by the Muslim world and the West – into an unholy war of suicide bombings, hostage taking, and broad-based terror.

In parallel, Islamophobia has increased sharply, while anti-Americanism sentiments surge on the Arab and Muslim streets. The West is galvanized by terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Iraq, Israel, etc. while the Muslim world is galvanized by invasion of its lands, abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and images of civilian deaths and destruction caused by Israel, in Gaza and Lebanon

Against the backdrop of this bleak world situation, the West desires stable, secular democracies in the Muslim countries it deems as “supporting terrorism”, believing this to be the ultimate measure of victory in the “war against terrorism”. But a number of challenges exist in this battle of hearts and minds, and data is ever-important to understand the people we wish to move.

[What] doomed the United States during the Vietnam War was that it knew almost nothing about its enemy [Former Secretary of Defense McNamara in an interview]

The Vietnam War was believed to be part of the “domino theory” in preventing monolithic communism, similar to how the present war is framed. To halt the same mistake from being made, an effort has to be made in order to understand “the other”—the mainstream, moderate majority Muslims, and the extremist minority. Some of the key questions asked by Gallup reveal a significant insight:

  1. Who are the political radicals?
  2. What is the link between terrorism and poverty or ignorance?
  3. Are the radicals jobless and hopeless?
  4. What is the relationship between Islam and terrorism? What about jihad and suicide terrorism?
  5. Why do they hate us and our way of life?
  6. What are the primary drivers of radicalism?

Who are the political radicals?

The debate on how radicals are “made” has gone on for decades. Blame has been pinned on psychological, sociological, economic, political, and religious. The intuitive sense has been to blame a combination of religious extremism, poverty, and unemployment as driving terrorism. But for instance, many of the 9/11 attackers were not poor or downtrodden or uneducated, and this came as a surprise to many.

The authors argue that it shouldn’t have, considering recent history. Early studies by Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim concluded that the typical profile of militant Islamic group comprised: youth, middle-class, educated and from cohesive families. Not so different are today’s breed of militants. Another important distinction: some of these radicals were devout, others not. For instance, many of the 9/11 hijackers drank, and frequented strip clubs and porn shops, not exactly practicing Muslims! Furthermore, most of the terrorists didn’t go to the oft-maligned madrassas. For example, Omar Sheikh (the mastermind of Daniel Pearl’s murder) studied at the prestigious London School of Economics.

So, what does the data say?

According to the Gallup Poll covering 10 countries the make up 80% of the Muslim population (Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Morocco, Iran, and Bangladesh)

7% of respondents think that 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified [authors refer to them as “the politically radicalized”], and view the US unfavorably. Among those who believe that the 9/11 attacks were not justified [authors refer to them as “the politically radicalized”] 40% are pro-United States, but 60% view the United States unfavorably.

The authors are not saying that all in the “7% group” commit acts of violence, but rather they are a potential source for recruitment and support for terrorist groups. 13% of this “7% group” is so committed to political change that they view other civilian attacks as completely justified.

Age distinction? Not much. 49% of this group is between 18-29, but similar to the 41% of those with moderate views in the same age range. One may also find surprising that 37% of the “political radicals” are females.

What is the link between terrorism and poverty or ignorance?

None, according to the data. The political radicals are on average more educated than the moderates: 67% have secondary or higher education (vs. 52% of moderates), 65% have average or above-average income (vs. 55% of moderates).

Are political radicals jobless and hopeless?

No, according to the data. Unemployment levels are about the same for radicals and moderates (approx. 20% each). In fact, the radicals are more likely to supervise others (higher responsibility) at 47%, compared to 34% moderates. Hopeless? Not really. 64% of radicals are satisfied financially and quality of life, compared to 55% moderates. Surprisingly, more radicals (52%) are more optimistic about their futures than moderates at 45%. But while they are optimistic about their own lives, they are more pessimistic about world affairs and internal politics.

What is the religion-terrorism connection?

The use of religious language and symbolism by terrorists seemingly puts Islam at the forefront of their motivations. Critics charge that Islam, a militant or violent religion, is responsible for global terrorism, and terrorists by default are devoutly religious. The noted atheist, Sam Harris wrote in Washington Times that it was time to admit that “we are not at war with ‘terrorism’. We are at war with Islam… The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a dangerous fantasy” [Harris writes similar here, and is roundly rebuffed here].

But, what does the data say?

Again the answer is no connection! Radical views do not correlate with personal piety. Both radicals and moderates (94% and 90% respectively, remember the ±3% margin of error) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. Furthermore, there is no significant difference between the two groups in mosque attendance, an important parameter of “piety level”.

The radicals were further asked why they condoned extremist actions, and their responses would shake Sam Harris and other disillusioned “experts” to the core. For example in Indonesia (the largest Muslim majority nation), those who condemned terrorism (the moderates) cited humanitarian AND Islamic reasons for holding their views [such as the verse “Killing one life is as sinful as killing the entire humanity”- Quran 5.32]. And what about the radicals? Not a SINGLE respondent from Indonesia who condoned the 9/11 attacks cited the Quran as justification. Instead, the responses were “markedly secular and worldly” [such as “The US government is too controlling toward other countries”].

Its politics, not piety, stupid!

How then does one explain extremists’ religious rhetoric? The Gallup data clearly demonstrated that religion is the dominant ideology in the Arab and Muslim world, just as secular Arab nationalism was in the days of ex-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The PLO, a staunchly secular group, used secular Palestinian nationalism to recruit and justify acts of violence.

Just as Arab nationalism was used in the 1960s, today religion is used to justify extremism and terrorism

The authors emphasize the need for larger and more complex context to understand the link between religion and terrorism. Close ties have existed among religion, politics and societies, and leaders have used and hijacked religion for their own ulterior political or territorial purposes.

In the next part: Islam & Jihad, suicide terrorism, “do they hate us and our way of life”, Muslim views about the West and America.

Due to questions raised on previous posts about how this polling could be done effectively in developing countries, the following bit from the book on methodology should help understand the science better. For those seriously concerned about this, and understand statistical sampling, there are two excellent sections in the book dedicated to this.

Important notes on the methodology design and sampling:

Two methods are used by Gallup. (1) A RDD telephone system is used where 80%+ population uses landlines, as is the case in most developed nations. (2) An area frame design is used for face-to-face interviewing in the developing world.

Key aspects of the survey philosophy: Sample represents all parts of each country, including rural area. Face-to-face surveys are about an hour long, phone 30 minutes. Sample size of 1000 ensures a +-3% margin of error.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").



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  2. Amad

    May 6, 2008 at 9:28 AM

    I found this chapter particularly revealing in what Muslims are thinking. Especially highlighting how Muslims use Quran to justify NON-violence, while the radicals use politics to justify violence. Of course, there are exceptions, but statistical sampling gets it right within a 95% confidence level band.

    On a side-note, I didn’t know much about statistics until I took a course on it last semester. And I think everyone will find it useful to learn a bit more about it. When you hear poll results and data reported as +-3%, etc… what does that mean?

    You can read more here on confidence intervals here and here (this one is a nice summary).

  3. Islam

    May 9, 2008 at 6:57 AM

    I just want to answer your question, What is the relationship between Islam and terrorism? As i read this, i remember one article that i had read regarding terrorism and it said that “Islam does not support terrorism under any circumstances. Terrorism goes against every principle in Islam. If a Muslim engages in terrorism, he is not following Islam. He may be wrongly using the name of Islam for political or financial gain.” After reading this article i come up for this conclusion, nobody wants to kill or to hurt other people and I think no one would create a rule that will put his people into a door of death.

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