It’s time for some good news from the Middle East. The region is a tangle of sectarian bloodshed, territorial clashes and ideological disputes. But there is one bright light, an important, positive development that we should pause to appreciate.
A recent poll of 14 Muslim-majority countries by the Pew Research Center has come up with startling, highly encouraging results: Muslims are becoming increasingly opposed to extremism.
Muslims are turning against organizations that support violence and terrorism. Public approval for suicide bombings is way down, and so is support for the likes of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Boko Haram.
It’s a dramatic change from the days just after 9/11 when any Westerner traveling through the Muslim Middle East and Asia could see troubling signs. I remember the Osama bin Laden T-shirts flying off the shelves in the bazaars, the burning Twin Towers shirts hawked by street vendors, the jaw-dropping conversations, even with some educated people who found justification for every manner of terrorist activity.
At long last, that ideology is significantly receding. While extremists are making territorial gains, their ideology is losing ground. They are losing the war of ideas.
In 2003, al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was one of the most trusted leaders in the Muslim world. Support for bin Laden was particularly strong among Palestinians, Jordanians and Pakistanis. In 2004, a survey showed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was the most admired man in the Middle East. The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which has carried out and claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings, once enjoyed strong popular support of the Palestinian population.
Now all of them — bin Laden, Hezbollah and Hamas — have seen their popularity plummet.
The new survey was taken in the spring, before ISIS swept into Iraq from Syria and before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Favorable views of al Qaeda are scarce. Unfavorable views stand at 96% in Lebanon, 85% in Turkey, 83% in Jordan, 81% in Egypt and 42% in Pakistan. The highest level of approval is found in the Palestinian territories, at 25%. Researchers found antipathy toward al Qaeda among Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The Islamist Boko Haram, whose name became internationally known after kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, is despised by more than 80% of Nigerians.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, maintains strong support among Lebanon’s Shiites, but majorities see it unfavorably in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere.
Hamas, whose rejectionist stance against Israel has a tendency to increase its popularity during times of strife, may be enjoying a boost during the current upsurge in violence, but its image has deteriorated greatly overall. Large majorities had unfavorable views of Hamas in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Even in the Palestinian territories, the majority said it had a negative opinion of the group.
Not only are terrorist groups losing hearts and minds, more Muslims are rejecting their methods.
A dozen years ago, Pew asked Muslims around the world if they thought suicide bombings could be justified in defense of Islam. The results were depressing.
In Lebanon, for example, 73% said yes. Two years later, in 2004, when asked whether suicide bombings against Westerners in Iraq were justified, majorities said yes in Morocco and Jordan, which are relatively moderate countries. In most countries, even when majorities disapproved, there were large numbers that would not reject that particularly vile method of murder.
Since then, the suicide bombers have expanded their targets and gone from killing Americans and Israelis to massacring other Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Syrian, Nigeria, Indonesia and many other places. Islamic extremism has been morphing from an ideological rallying cry to a brutally oppressive fighting force in many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The percentage who thought suicide bombings can be justified to defend Islam “often” or “sometimes” was just 3% in Pakistan, where 83% said “never.” In Tunisia it was 5%, with 90% saying never. In Israel, 16% of Israeli Muslims said it can be justified, 48% said never.
In the Palestinian Territories 46% said it could be justified, the numbers were higher in Gaza (52%) than in the West Bank (36%).
The refusal to reject suicide terrorism is still too high in some places, but the general trend is positive and significant.
When ISIS started to broadcast images of the mass murder its forces are committing in Iraq, it was sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Rejection happens the moment terrorists kill close to home, turning supporters into opponents. Similarly, in Jordan, admiration for bin Laden plummeted in 2005 after a series of suicide bombings killed scores of people in the capital.
Public opinion polls don’t translate into battlefield success or electoral victories that sweep murderous extremists from power. But the latest survey gives us hope.
Despite the relentless barrage of horrible news and the unending human misery in the Middle East, the tide of public opinion is moving away from extremism. That can only count as a much-needed encouraging sign for a long-term future of reconciliation, when radicalism will be rejected and peace can return.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.