Analysis: Where Terrorism Finds Support in the Muslim World

Source Organization: Pew Research Center


05/23/2006 - What produces terrorists and what conditions allow them to multiply in number and power in the Muslim world? While many studies point to the important role public opinion plays in creating an environment in which terrorist groups can flourish, relatively few works have explored survey data to measure support for terrorism among general publics. Findings from the 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey on attitudes toward suicide bombing and civilian attacks and other measures of support for terrorism offer some revealing perspectives on this question.i

Most notably, the survey finds that terrorism is not a monolithic concept--support for terrorist activity depends importantly on its type and on the location in which it occurs. For example, Moroccans overwhelmingly disapprove of suicide bombings against civilians, but, among respondents in the six predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, they are the most likely to see it as a justifiable tactic against Americans and other westerners in Iraq. Opinions about the United States, its attitudes in dealing with the larger world and the Iraq war are also powerful factors in shaping support for terrorism, as are perceptions that Islam is under threat. With the exception of gender, demographic differences, including income, explain little if anything about attitudes toward terrorism in the Muslim world, but country-specific differences are significant, suggesting the importance of local social, political and religious conditions.

These findings are generally though not entirely consistent with other studies of the origins and growth of Islamic terrorism. Much of the relevant literature, however, differs in its focus, concentrating instead on the motivations of terrorist organizations and their members. For example, groups may turn to suicide bombing when other strategies fail (Martha Crenshaw, 1998) or when they find themselves in competition for public support with other militant groups (Mia Bloom, 2005). Robert Pape (2003) finds that terrorism can be a "rational" strategy, pursued by groups, including secular groups, seeking territorial concessions from liberal democracies (2003).

Several authors examine the link between political authoritarianism and terror. Alberto Abadie (2004) finds countries in transition from authoritarianism to democracy at a heightened risk for terrorist activities, while Gregory Gause (2005) argues that authoritarian regimes may be best equipped to stifle terrorism - he offers China as an example. Still others see support for terrorism driven in part by opposition to U.S. foreign policy. For instance, Scott Atran (2004) finds "no evidence that most people who support suicide actions hate Americans' internal cultural freedoms, but rather every indication that they oppose U.S. foreign policies, particularly regarding the Middle East."

Read the full analysis Where Terrorism Finds Support in the Muslim World on the Pew Research Center Web site.

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