Support for militants is on the wane, says survey

Opinion poll shows continuing decline in support for militant groups such as al Qa'eda across the Muslim world.

In majority Muslim countries, Hamas and Hizbollah have tepid support, backing for Osama bin Laden continues to wane and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is far and away the most popular leader. Most Muslims also believe tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are not limited to Iraq's borders, that girls and boys should be educated equally, and that there is a struggle between Islamic fundamentalists and those who want to modernise their respective nations.

Those findings of an opinion poll, carried out by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project and published last week, come amid continuing debate about the proper relationship between mosque and state, as well as about the role of violence in political change. According to the survey findings, enthusiasm for Hamas and Hizbollah, two of Islam's most militant exemplars, is muted across the Muslim world and, paradoxically, most absent in their own backyards.

Hamas received more positive ratings in Jordan (56 per cent favourable) and Egypt (52 per cent favourable) than among Palestinians, who disapproved of the Gaza Strip's rulers more than approved of them (52 per cent to 44 per cent). Qualms about Hamas were especially acute in Gaza, where the Islamist group received only 37-per-cent approval compared with 47 per cent in the West Bank. Similarly, Hizbollah fared better abroad than at home, with most Palestinians (61 per cent) and Jordanians (51 per cent) having a positive view of the Lebanese Shiite organisation.

In contrast, Hizbollah made out less well in Egypt (43 per cent) and even worse in Lebanon (35 per cent), where views split along religious lines: nearly all the country's Shiites (97 per cent) expressed a positive opinion of the organisation. Only 18 per cent of the country's Christians and two per cent of its Sunni Muslims concurred. The views of Hamas and Hizbollah underscored a continuing trend, said analysts at the Pew centre, based in Washington.

"Lukewarm support for extremist groups among Muslim publics is consistent with other Pew Global Attitudes findings in recent years, which have shown declining public support for extremism and suicide bombing among most Muslim populations," their report noted. It was not just Islamic groups widely characterised as "extremist" or "radical" that were generally poorly received by Muslim publics, according to the poll, which was conducted last May and June in six mainly Muslim nations and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Nigeria's Muslim population and Israel's Arab population.

In Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, only 18 per cent of those 18 years old and up said they had confidence in the al Qa'eda leader, down from 51 per cent in 2005. Only two per cent of those polled in Lebanon and only three per cent in Turkey expressed support for the 53-year-old bin Laden. Approval for him was highest among Nigeria's Muslims (54 per cent) and in the Palestinian territories (51 per cent), where the "less educated" and the young were "more likely" to express backing for bin Laden, the 40-page report said.

The strong misgivings about bin Laden, Hamas and Hizbollah described in the Pew findings did not, however, translate into ardour for the Muslim world's current political leadership. "There is limited enthusiasm for most of the Muslim political figures tested on the survey," said the report, which asked Muslims for their opinions about presidents Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, along with the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

The notable exception to this mostly unenthusiastic response was King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's cautious moderniser. In Jordan and Egypt large majorities said they "have confidence that King Abdullah will do the right thing in world affairs". The custodian of the two holy mosques also received positive ratings outside the Middle East, especially in Pakistan (64 per cent) and Indonesia (61 per cent).

Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq Alawsat, a Saudi-owned English newspaper, said King Abdullah owes his ranking in the Pew survey to his efforts to improve education and to enhance the lot of women in the kingdom, as well as to press forward with inter-religious dialogue, the Arab Peace Initiative and the fight against the "disease of terrorism". "The importance of this poll is that it reflects the voice of the silent majority", Mr Alhomayed wrote in an editorial yesterday.

"It shows us that Arab and Islamic nations want someone who works with sincerity, not someone who talks about slogans and destruction," he said. The "silent majority" had other things to say, too. In the struggle between fundamentalists and modernisers, a majority of Muslims in eight countries sided overwhelmingly with the latter, just as more than 80 per cent in four countries and the Palestinian territories said it was just as important to educate girls as it is boys.

Religious divisions also were apparent. A majority in seven countries said Sunni-Shiite friction is a "general problem" in the Muslim world. Also, attitudes towards Jews were "extremely negative", with more than 90 per cent of Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians expressing unfavourable views towards Jews. Only 35 per cent of Israeli Arabs, however, expressed a negative opinion, the Pew report said. Negative views of Christians also were "common" in Pakistan and Egypt, it added.

One has to understand the polls in context: second editorial, a19