November 21, 2006

What Makes a Muslim Radical?

Interesting, brief survey on the Foreign Policy website by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. The differences between "moderate" Muslims and "radical" Muslims are extremely slight. This doesn't surprise me in the respect that comments aimed at the "radical" Muslims or "Islamists" I often find to be rather offensive and, yes, I do consider myself to be "moderate." Non-Muslims should be much more tactful when talking about Islam and the Muslim world (a point lost on many Americans). The last survey question asked, What else can the West do to improve relations?, I actually agree with both answers.

Ask any foreign-policy expert how the West will know it is winning the war on terror, and the likely response will be, “When the Islamic world rejects radicalism.” But just who are Muslim radicals, and what fuels their fury? Every politician has a theory: Radicals are religious fundamentalists. They are poor. They are full of hopelessness and hate. But those theories are wrong.

Based on a new Gallup World Poll of more than 9,000 interviews in nine Muslim countries, we find that Muslim radicals have more in common with their moderate brethren than is often assumed. If the West wants to reach the extremists, and empower the moderate Muslim majority, it must first recognize who it’s up against.

Religion an important part of your daily life
Radicals: 92%
Moderates: 91%

Attended religious service in last 7 days
Radicals: 56%
Moderates: 59%*

* Difference is statistically insignificant given the +/- 3% margin of error.

Because terrorists often hijack Islamic precepts for their own ends, pundits and politicians in the West sometimes portray Islam as a religion of terrorism. They often charge that religious fervor triggers radical and violent views. But the data say otherwise: There is no significant difference in religiosity between moderates and radicals. In fact, radicals are no more likely to attend religious services regularly than are moderates.

Primary school or less
Radicals: 23%
Moderates: 34%

Secondary school through university
Radicals: 44%
Moderates: 38%

Low or very low income
Radicals: 22%
Moderates: 31%

Above-average or very high income
Radicals: 25%
Moderates: 21%

It’s no secret that many in the Muslim world suffer from crippling poverty and lack of education. But are radicals any poorer than their fellow Muslims? We found the opposite: There is indeed a key difference between radicals and moderates when it comes to income and education, but it is the radicals who earn more and who stay in school longer.

Where do you expect to be in the next 5 years?
Worse off
Radicals: 7%
Moderates: 7%

Better off
Radicals: 53%
Moderates: 44%

Whenever a suicide bomber completes a deadly mission, the act is often attributed to hopelessness—the inability to find a job, earn a living, or support a family. But the politically radical are not more “hopeless” than the mainstream. More radicals expressed satisfaction with their financial situation and quality of life than their moderate counterparts, and a majority of them expected to be better off in the years to come.

Most admired aspects about the West
Western technology (top response for both groups)
Radicals: 30%
Moderates: 31%

Liberty/Democracy/Freedom of Speech (second-most common response)
Radicals: 22%
Moderates: 22%

The war on terror is premised on a key question: Why do they hate us? The common answer from Washington is that Muslim radicals hate our way of life, our freedom, and our democracy. Not so. Both moderates and radicals in the Muslim world admire the West, in particular its technology, democratic system, and freedom of speech.

What can the West do to improve relations?
Respect Islam (top response for both groups)
Radicals: 39%
Moderates: 36%

What else can the West do to improve relations?
Radicals (Refrain from interfering or imposing its beliefs and policies): 17%
Moderates (Economic development/Jobs): 22%

What, then, separates a Muslim moderate from a Muslim radical? Although almost all Muslims believe the West should show more respect for Islam, radicals are more likely to feel that the West threatens and attempts to control their way of life. Moderates, on the other hand, are more eager to build ties with the West through economic development. This divergence of responses offers policymakers a key opportunity to develop strategies to prevent the moderate mainstream from sliding away, and to check the persuasive power of those who would do us harm.

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as moderates. Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on the same scale) are classified as radicals. The data for this poll were obtained during 2005-06 from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Approximately 1,000 in-home interviews were conducted in each country. The sampling mix of urban and rural areas is the statistical equivalent of surveying each nation’s adult population, with a statistical sampling error rate of +/- 3 percent.

John L. Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Dalia Mogahed is executive director of Muslim studies for the Gallup Organization. They are working on a forthcoming book titled, Can You Hear Me?: Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims, to be published by Gallup Press in September 2007.

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