By Barry Rubin
December 23, 2010
Revolutionary Islamism entails the two distinct denominations of Islam in West Asia. The US’s attempt to win over this attitude is flawed because it undermines the fact that such radical views are backed by structural and communal issues
There’s a lot of interesting material in the Pew Foundation’s latest poll of West Asia, 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 Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, are consistently negative…” The implication is that the poll shows that people in these countries are not radical. Actually, the poll shows the precise opposite.
To begin with, let’s look at Jordan. There, 55 per cent say they like Hizbullah (against 43 per cent negative) while 60 per cent are favourable (compared to 34 per cent 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, indeed it often identifies the threat as coming from Shia Muslims. Hizbullah is a Shia group which also is an agent of Iran and Syria. For a majority to praise that organisation, conscious of strong Government disapproval, is phenomenal.
The figures for Hamas can be more easily explained by the Palestinian connection. Yet the difference between support for Hamas and for Hizbullah in terms of public opinion isn’t that great. And liking Hamas also suggests that Jordan’s people — of whom a majority are Palestinian — prefer Hamas over Fatah and the Palestinian Authority — Hamas’s rival.
Why do people support Hamas and Hizbullah? Obviously, one reason is that they fight Israel (a country with which Jordan is at peace, by the way) 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 (a strategy associated with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah). 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 per cent are favourable toward that terrorist group while 62 per cent 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 neighbouring Iraq and, most important of all, it has murdered people within 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 since the vast majority of Al Qaeda’s operations are intended to overthrow Arab, Muslim Governments.
So one-third of Jordan’s people favour the most extremist terrorist group — despite the fact that it has murdered Jordanians and is hated by their Government — and roughly half or more like revolutionary Islamist organisation 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 per cent like Hizbullah (66 per cent don’t like) 49 per cent are favourable toward Hamas (48 per cent are negative); and 20 per cent smile (72 per cent 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 Hizbullah because it is a Shia group. The Egyptian Government has accused Hizbullah 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.
And just remember that in two countries considered US allies and receiving US aid, one-third and one-fifth of the population, respectively, support the group that killed 3,000 Americans on September 11. The Obama Administration’s response is that this is the reason it has to follow certain policies: To win over those who are most antagonistic and to keep others from becoming more radical. The problem is that these policies don’t achieve those goals. What determines these views are structural and communal issues within each country.
Here’s an example of that point. In Lebanon, attitudes divide along sectarian lines. While 94 per cent of Shia Muslims support Hizbullah (only 5 per cent are negative), 84 per cent of Sunnis are unfavourable on Hizbullah (only 12 per cent are positive) toward it. Christians are 87 per cent negative on Hizbullah (and only 10 per cent 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 their local collaborators, of which Hizbullah is only one of the elements.
--The writer is director of the GLORIA Center, Tel Aviv, and editor of the MERIA Journal. To be concluded.
Source: Daily Pioneer