The Middle East is rampant with Islamist extremism that is assuming new and dangerous proportions. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda breakaway group, has seized territory in western and northern Iraq and declared itself an ‘Islamic State’ and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a ‘Caliph’. ISIS’s intentions were recently announced in a YouTube video where it declared the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement, claiming that borders between nations were meaningless, and it would seek to build an Islamic state on all ‘Muslim’ lands.
The warning signs have been there for some time, and a new poll by the Pew Research Centre has confirmed these fears. The poll, taken before ISIS took control of parts of Iraq, noted high and growing concern about Islamic extremism by people in countries with substantial Muslim populations – including Lebanon (92%), Tunisia (80%), Egypt (75%), Bangladesh (69%), Pakistan (66%), Malaysia (63%) and Jordan (62%).
It is also interesting to note that the highest opposition to Islamist extremism has come from areas where the most extreme regime/groups are active. For example, 82% of Nigerians had a negative view of Boko Haram, the terrorist group in northern Nigeria, which recently kidnapped hundreds of school children. In another example, 79% of those surveyed in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Sunni Islamist group Hamas, were concerned about Islamist extremism as opposed to only 57% in the West Bank, which is governed by the more moderate Palestinian Authority. Moreover, 63% of those surveyed in the Gaza Strip held negative views of Hamas, in contrast to 47% in the West Bank. Regional views of Hamas were also negative in countries including Turkey (80%), Lebanon (65%), Egypt (61%) and Jordan (61%).
Despite the polling of the Palestinians demonstrating a concern with Islamist extremism, when the poll asked whether suicide bombings or other forms of violence against civilians targets can be justified, in the Middle East support is highest in the Palestinian territories – with 62% of Gazan Muslims in support, and 36% of Muslims in the West Bank. This disparity was recently seen following reports of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping, support for it was reportedly widespread with social media campaigns involving children featuring a ‘three fingered salute’ to celebrate the news (see previous blog post).
Moreover, the poll also revealed negative attitudes with respect to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Regarding the Shi’ite Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, the poll found that negative views of Hezbollah were rising in the Middle East in recent years with the exception of Lebanon where it retained support from 86% of Shia Lebanese. However, in Lebanon, 59% have an unfavourable view of Hezbollah, including 88% of Lebanese Sunni Muslims and 69% of Lebanese Christians. In the Palestinian territories, negative opinions of Hezbollah are stronger in the Gaza Strip (69%) compared to the West Bank (46%). Regionally it was viewed unfavouraby in Turkey (85%), Egypt (83%) and Jordan (81%), as well as by two-thirds of Israeli Arabs (65%). In Asia, where Hezbollah has also been active, views were generally negative with Bangladesh (56%) and Indonesia (43%). The rise in negative attitudes towards Hezbollah may be linked to Hezbollah actively supporting and fighting for the Shi’ite supported Alawite Assad regime in Syria against largely Sunni opposition groups.
The Pew poll confirms what has widely been known – threats from Islamist extremists are not only the concern of Western nations, but are of real and growing concern to Muslim populated countries. Moreover, the people most exposed to Islamist extremism, for example in Gaza and Nigeria – are the people most concerned about this threat. With ISIS now taking over territory that stretches from Syria to Iraq to the borders of Jordan, the threats posed by Islamist extremism are no longer merely ideological but profoundly territorial and alarmingly real.