Mohamed Younis, J.D. Senior Analyst, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies in Washington D.C
Today I’ll be sharing with you some of the research we at gallup, specifically at the abu dhabi gallup center, have been working on most recently. It perfectly dovetails into the title of our gathering here today “Incitement to hatred and violence on the basis of religion or belief”
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, social scientists, counterterrorism experts and some of us in this room have been working to understand what provokes someone to deliberately take the lives of innocent people. Obviously, the attacks on 9/11 brought this question to the forefront for most americans but for other parts of the world, particularly in many muslim majority countries, the cross point between faith, religiosity and political violence targeting civilians has been a topic of debate, focus and the objective of many successful and not so successful counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization policies.
The religious veneer of al Qaeda's (and similar groups) public posture led many analysts, policy makers and the public to search for answers to extremist violence within Islam's teachings. Some analysts have even argued that a wholesale revision of Muslim theology is the only way to defeat violent extremism.
But Empirical evidence paints a different picture. Gallup research over the past several years suggests that one's religious identity and level of devotion have little to do with one's views on the moral acceptability of violently targeting civilians. Now we found this to be largely true in many Muslim majority countries as well as non-Muslim majority countries.
In a recent study we’ve conducted , which includes over 130 countries around the globe, we found that human development and governance - NOT piety or culture - are the strongest factors in explaining differences in how publics across the world perceive the moral legitimacy of violent attacks targeting civilians.
Needless to say, the implications of these findings on public policy, whether it be in Muslim majority countries as well as non-Muslim majority countries (such as here in the United States, for example) are far-reaching. Our research suggests that to increase a public's rejection of targeting civilians, particularly in Muslim majority countries, leaders MUST focus far more on things like education and government accountability, and less on religious ideology.
So Rather than look to redesigning religion to explain, and ultimately avoid, public acceptance of civilian targeted violence, our analysis suggests that leaders should consider social and economic development and better governance as spaces of impact on general attitudes surrounding violence targeted toward civilians.
We now know that the way individuals within a society think about violence targeting civilians, (whether committed by a military or an individual actor or small group), directly relates to the level of human development and stability of that society more broadly.
So in this study what we set out to do was explore whether or not respondents all across the globe felt there was a moral justification for violent attacks deliberately targeting civilians.
We did this by asking people to choose between absolutely rejecting attacks targeting civilians as "never justified" OR conditionally accepting the tactic as "sometimes justified." This simplification makes it easier to ask the same question globally.
So the question was:
Some people think that… For the military to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified
Some people think that …For an individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified
Which is your opinion?
1. Never justified
2. Sometimes justified
4. (Don't know)
It’s important to note that the questions specifically address the "targeting" of civilians, not simply their unintended harm as collateral damage. So of the dozens of questions we ask about 9/11, MW relations, etc.., these are just two of those questions. And what I’ll be doing next is sharing some of the trends we found when comparing those who said such attacks were justified with those who said such attacks were never justified.
Human Development and Education
And as I mentioned earlier what we found was that Public tolerance for attacks on civilians is linked to lower Human Development Index Scores (Human Development Index of the UNDP):
Therefore, In countries with lower UNDP Human Development Index scores, people are more likely to say individual and military attacks on civilians are sometimes justified. This suggests that human development is a strong policy lever that leaders should engage to lower the risk of social unrest, rather than look to jerrymander or ‘fix’ religious behavior or social norms.
This is actually good news for governments because its always much more politically, socially and religiously palpable (not to mention natural) for policy makers and government generally to focus their efforts on moving the needle on Human development rather than custom tailoring religion. Whether it’s in Egypt or in the UK, over the past ten years we have seen a series of governmental attempts at countering extremism through religious messages or faith-focused initiatives that in most cases often ring hollow or unauthentic with the audiences and communities they target.
It’s important to also note that the percentage of a nation's GDP that is devoted to education also correlates positively with lower public acceptance of individual attacks on civilians. This further illustrates how important human development is in explaining varying levels of public support for attacks on civilians, and the degree to which governments across the globe can invest in the factors most closely associated with lower levels of support for such violence.
As with the UNDP index scores, it follows of course that Residents in richer countries in general are more likely than those in poorer countries to reject individual attacks on civilians. Two notable outliers are Egypt and Lebanon, both middle income countries, where residents are among the most likely to say such attacks are never justified.
On the other side of the spectrum, Singapore, a high-income country, is among the top 10 countries where residents are most likely to say individual attacks are sometimes justified. So despite the general income based trends, there are a good number of outliers to this general relationship we see with higher income countries having lower levels of support for such violence.
Societal Instability and its Link to attitudes on violence
Our research also uncovered a correlation between higher levels of public acceptance of attacks on civilians and social unrest and national instability.
Though in general the more a country suffers from poor human development, poor governance, and lack of stability, the less likely its public is to reject military attacks on civilians as never justified, there are notable exceptions. For example, the U.S., Israel, and New Zealand score high on measures of stability and human development, but their residents are among the most likely in the world to see military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified. It is also important to note that in countries like the US confidence levels in the military hovers in the mid to high 90’s which to some degree explain the noticeable shift between attitudes on military attacks vs non-state actor attacks on civilians.
In addition to Human development and Income, Poor government accountability, lower transparency, and less freedom are linked to higher public tolerance for individual attacks on civilians.
We found that lower scores on indices from Freedom House, to the Corruption Perception Index, Rule of Law Index and others, correlate with higher rates of public tolerance for attacks on civilians.
This indicates that less empowered publics are more likely to see justification at times for sub-national group/non-state actor initiated violence.
This is important to keep in mind of course with the latest developments in the MENA region where we have seen varying degrees and forms of uprisings, some violent and others pursuing a ‘non-violent’ strategy, in countries with some of the least empowered publics on the globe.
Since 9/11, voices arguing that Islam encourages violence more than other religions have grown louder . This theory was most recently featured in the manifesto penned by Anders Breivik which he posted online before murdering more than 70 people in a summer camp in Norway.
In his manifesto, Breivik argues that Islam is intrinsically violent and peaceful Muslims are simply ignoring their faith's injunctions to kill. He cites dozens of European and American pundits to support this assertion. If this popular claim were true, it would logically follow that Islam's adherents would be more likely than others to condone violence, even if most find it easier not to follow through on their beliefs, as Breivik contends.
But yet again,…the evidence refutes this argument. Residents of the Organization of the Islamic Conference/Cooperation (OIC) member states are slightly less likely than residents of non-member states to view military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified, and about as likely as those of non-member states to say the same about attacks on civilians by non-state actors. Thus support for attacks targeting civilians whether they be by state or non-state actors is no more prevalent, but in fact in some cases less prevalent, in OIC countries when compared to the non-OIC countries among the 130 countries we looked at in this study.
No Link Between Views of Violence and Importance of Religion
In addition to those who single Islam out, some pundits, have accused religion in general of encouraging violence……the evidence regarding public support for targeting civilians challenges this notion.
Our research showed that public acceptance of violence against non-combatants is actually NOT linked to religious devotion.
For example, in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, those who reject attacks on civilians are as likely as those who see them as sometimes justified to say religion is an important part of their daily lives. Though there appears to be a slight difference linking religiosity and sympathy for attacks on civilians among the residents of the U.S. and Canada, this difference is not statistically significant.
In Europe and the MENA region, those who reject military and individual attacks on civilians are more likely to say religion is an important part of their daily lives.
In closing, its important to note that public perceptions of the moral justification for attacks targeting civilians do not necessarily predict violence against non-combatants, nor are terrorist activities or war crimes necessarily the result of public support.
Alqaeda provides some great examples, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Mohamed Atta, and the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were both from middle-class Egyptian families. Yet, Egypt ties Finland as the country with the highest level of unequivocal rejection of individual attacks against civilians. Furthermore, Egypt ranks as one of the top countries in the world for rejecting military attacks against civilians.
Similarly, Norwegians are among the most likely to say individual attacks against civilians are never justified, though a Norwegian this year carried out one of the worst terrorist attacks in European history. This suggests that terrorist activity is largely on the periphery, carried out despite community rejection and not with its tacit support.
At the same time, high levels of public rejection of targeting civilians do suggest a higher respect for the value of human life, a prized asset for any society to cultivate. Not surprisingly, strong levels of popular rejection of deliberate attacks on civilians are linked to a healthier, more stable society, a lower risk of social conflict, and higher levels of human development. Whether public perceptions regarding the sanctity of human life produce these outcomes, or if these conditions produce healthy social norms, or both, is impossible to determine with the available data. However, there is a link between public perceptions regarding civilian life and important societal outcomes; understanding these sentiments are a mandatory component of leadership in a post 9/11 world.
Unpredictable Partners for Understanding
Most People don’t realize that in a country as secular as Norway associating oneself with religion, no matter what religion you are, is quite ostracizing politically. I remember sitting at a roundtable at the Norwegian labor party in Oslo in 2007, with a Christian religious leader, a few imams and what was the equivalent of the religious community outreach team for the party. The Christian leader was explaining to me that for him, as a man of faith, he has more in common with Muslims in Norway than ethnic Norwegians who may look a lot more like him, but don’t understand his commitment to his faith.
I say this because one thing Muslims in this country and others have learned since 9/11 is that there are many other religious, ethnic, political groups that can serve as that bridge.
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