Arab Public Opinion, Al-Qaeda & the Long War

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A recent opinion poll surveying Arab public opinion provides some fascinating insights on a range of issues relevant to anyone with an interest either in the region, in the countering of Al-Qaeda inspired transnational militancy, or in information operations.

The poll was conducted in March 2008 by the University of Maryland, in conjunction with Zogby International, and queried 4,046 people from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Outlined below are some of the findings I found particularly interesting.

Al-Qaeda

Only one question directly polled attitudes towards Al-Qaeda, but the responses are revealing:

When you think About Al Qaeda, what aspect of the organization, if any, do you sympathize with most?

30% – That it confronts the US.
21% – I do not sympathize at all with this organization.
18% – It stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine.
10% – Its methods of operation.
07% – It seeks to create a Taliban-style Islamic state.

Firstly, it is highly significant that the single most significant reason given for sympathising with AQ is its opposition to the US, rather than any inherent qualities of AQ itself. A similar result (33%) was returned in the 2006 version of the survey.

Taken in conjunction with the fact that only 7% of respondents sympathised with AQ’s ultimate goal of recreating a Salafist caliphate (also 7% in 2006), and the fact that 83% of respondents had either a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat unfavourable’ view of the US (see below), this would suggest that the single most effective strategy for countering AQ is not attacking either its ideology or its network – important as such efforts are – but reducing antipathy towards the US among AQ’s targeted constituencies.

Secondly, and most worryingly, the 21% of people claiming to have no sympathy with AQ at all is markedly less than the 33% who expressed no sympathy with AQ in 2006, suggesting that passive support for at least some aspects of AQ’s agenda is actually rising.

Much has been made of the suggestion that AQ’s brutal tactics, particularly the casualties inflicted on other Muslims, is turning ordinary Muslims against the organisation, with the rise of the Awakenings Movement in reaction to Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) excessess rightly cited. However, while those who always had reservations about AQ’s tactics may have been further repelled by AQ’s escalating brutality, the fact that 10% of respondents sympathised with its methods of operation in 2008 – down only 1% from 2006 – suggests that few of those who previously sympathised with the use of terrorism as a tactic have been dissuaded by the increasing barbarity.

Also interesting is the fact that 18% of respondents sympathise with AQ because they believe it stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine, up from 14% in 2006. Recent AQ communiques have placed greater emphasis on AQ’s support for the Palestinian issue than has been usual in the past, and it would seem the propaganda is getting results.

The US, Foreign Policy & Information Ops

Bearing in mind the apparent importance in the struggle against AQ of improving perceptions of the US, it is worth examining those questions in the poll which provide an insight into the nature of anti-US sentiment.

Generally speaking, what is your attitude toward the United States?

64% – Very unfavourable.
19% – Somewhat unfavourable.
11% – Somewhat favourable.
04% – Very favourable.

Would you say your attitudes toward the US are based more on American values or American policy in the Middle East?

80% – Based on American policy.
12% – Based on American values.

The United States has been actively advocating the spread of democracy in the Middle East, especially since the Iraq War. Do you believe that?

65% – I don’t believe that democracy is a real American objective.
20% – This is an important American objective, but the United States is going about it the wrong way.
08% – This is an important objective of American foreign policy that will make a difference in the Middle East.

Which TWO of the following factors do you believe are most important in driving American policy in the Middle East?

50% – Controlling oil.
47% – Protecting Israel.
33% – Weakening the Muslim world.
30% – Preserving regional and global dominance.
12% – Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
07% – Fighting terrorism.
06% – Promoting peace and stability.
04% – Spreading human rights.
04% – Promoting democracy.

While the extent of antipathy towards the US is discouraging, particularly since the respondents all come from countries whose governments have favourable relations with the US, the fact that only 12% of respondents objected to US values, compared to the 80% who objected to US policies, indicates that this situation is eminently reversible.

In part this requires not a change in policy, but a change in the way policy is presented and communicated. Redressing the fact that 33% of respondents believe that US policy in the Middle East is aimed at weakening the Muslim world would seem a good place to start. The fact that this allegation is one of the key platforms in the Al-Qaeda narrative is indicative of just how far our information operations lag behind those of AQ in influencing the populations that form the long war’s centre of gravity.

Regarding policy itself, the following policy shifts were advocated by the respondents:

What TWO steps by the US would improve your views of the US most?

50% – Brokering a Comprehensive Middle East Peace with Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border and establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol.
46% – Withdrawal of US forces from the Arabian Peninsula.
44% – Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
28% – Stopping economic and military aid to Israel.
13% – Pushing even more to spread democracy in the Middle East.
13% – Providing more economic assistance to the region.

Other Findings

The following are some of the key findings of the survey, as selected by the survey’s publishers. Particularly interesting is the fact that in Lebanon only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizballah, and that Nasrallah has increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world, being nominated by 26% of respondents.

Iraq: Only 6% of Arabs polled believe that the American surge has worked. A plurality (35% ) do not believe reports that violence has in fact declined. Over 61% believe that if the US were to withdraw from Iraq, Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences, and only 15% believe the civil war would expand. 81% of Arabs polled (outside Iraq) believe that the Iraqis are worse off than they were before the Iraq war.

Iran: In contrast with the fears of many Arab governments, the Arab public does not appear to see Iran as a major threat. Most believe that Iran has the right to its nuclear program and do not support international pressure to force it to curtail its program. A plurality of Arabs (44%) believes that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be more positive for the region than negative.

The Arab Israeli conflict: There is an increase in the expressed importance of the Palestinian issue, with 86% of the public identifying it as being at least among the top three issues to them. A majority of Arabs continues to support the two‐state solution based on the 1967 borders, but an increasing majority is pessimistic about its prospects. If the prospects of a two state solution collapse, 50% believe it would lead to a state of intense conflict for years to come, while only 9% believe it would lead to a one‐state solution, and only 7% believe that the Palestinians would eventually surrender.

Palestinian Divisions: In the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, only 8% sympathize with Fatah most, while 18% sympathize with Hamas, and 38% sympathize with both to some extent. In so far as they see Palestinians as somewhat responsible for the state of affairs in Gaza, 15% blame Hamas’s government most, 23% blame the government appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and 39% blame both equally.

The Lebanese Crisis: Only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition in the current internal crisis in Lebanon, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizbollah, 24% sympathize with neither side, and 19% sympathize with both to some extent.

Popular Leaders: Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world (26%). There was also an increase in the popularity of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Also striking, however, was the emerging popularity of modernizing Sunni Arab leaders, particularly Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, when respondents identify the two leaders they admire most.

Attitudes toward the US: 83% of the public has an unfavorable view of the US and 70% express no confidence in the US. Still, Arabs continue to rank the US among the top countries with freedom and democracy for their own people. 32% believe that, from the point of view of advancing peace in the Middle East, American policy will remain the same, no matter who wins the US elections. 18% believe that Barack Obama has the best chance of advancing peace, 13% believe Hillary Clinton has the best chance, while 4% identify John McCain as having the best chance for advancing peace.

Global Outlook: France continues to be the most popular country, China continues to make a good showing, and views of Pakistan have declined.

Media: Al‐Jazeera continues to command the largest share of the Arabic news market, with 53% of Arabs polled identifying it as their first choice for news, with practically no change from last year. Egyptian Television and Al‐Arabiya have made some gains over last year. To a plurality of respondents, the quality of both Al‐Arabiya and Al‐Jazeera has improved over previous years, with only a small minority perceiving a decline.

Download the full survey here [PDF].

Update:

The Economist has an article on the increasing attention being paid to assessing opinion in the Muslim world by polling organisations such as Gallup and Zogby International.

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One Response to “Arab Public Opinion, Al-Qaeda & the Long War”

  1. Mike Says:

    This is interesting. It touches on some important – and sensitive – issues. See the item in the NYT/IHT (covered in Wired’s Danger Room blog) on alleged government puppeteering of high profile military analysts in the media.

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