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The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11 - Demographic Surveys
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Article Index
The Role of Religion in U.S. National Security Policy since 9/11
Historiographical Projections on Human Conflict and Religion
The Power of Islam
Demographic Surveys
Religion as a Paradigm in National Security Policy
Conclusion: The Way Ahead
Glossary of Key Islamic Terms
All Pages

Demographic Surveys
Having examined a variety of Islamic positions, can we find demographic surveys which shed light on how various Muslims view the relationship of Islam to politics, the rule of Shari’ah, and the use of violent jihad and terrorist tactics? There have been relatively few scientific studies of the demographics of those who support radical Islam or terrorism.165 John Esposito and Dali Mogahed have published their views based on certain polling data, but did not included the data.166 The Pew Research Center’s surveys provide arguably the most dependable, comprehensive data; their initial applicable survey is the December 4, 2002 report of the Pew Global Attitudes Project (henceforth, 2002 Pew Report).167


Christine Fair and Bryan Shepherd have conducted rigorous analysis of the demographic variables represented in the 2002 Pew Report, yielding insights into Muslims who support terrorist tactics. Among the conclusions reached in their research are the following: (1) those who believe that Islam is under threat are much more likely to support terrorism, (2) those who believe that religious leaders should play a larger role in politics are substantially more likely to support terrorism, and (3) those who have a lower socioeconomic status are less likely to support terrorist acts.168

Below I focus on data from the July 14, 2005 updated report of the Pew Global Attitudes Project (henceforth, 2005 Pew Report), and the 2007 Pew Research Study, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream (henceforth, 2007 Pew Study).169 I have selected data that focus on three areas: (1) the importance of Islam for Muslim identity and political life (Tables 2, 3, and 4); (2) the Muslim perception of the meaning, and associated threats, of Islamic extremism (Tables 5 and 6);170 and (3) the level of support of Muslims for terrorist actions (Tables 7, 8, and 9).171 Values in the tables represent the percentage of responders for each specific answer to a survey question.

The 2005 Pew Report establishes the primary importance of Islam for Muslim identity and political life. When Muslims were asked how they viewed themselves—as either a citizen or resident of their country first, or as a Muslim first—respondents generally answered that they were Muslims first. See Table 2.172

Table 2. Self Identity of Muslim or Citizen (Muslim respondents only)

Country Muslim First Person of Country First Both Identities Equal/VR* DK/RA**
Turkey           43                  29                                 27                    1=100
Pakistan         79                   7                                 13                    1=100
Lebanon         30                  30                                 39                   1=100
Jordan            63                  23                                13                    0=99
Morocco          70                   7                                 23                    0=100
Indonesia        39                 35                                 26                    0=100

* VR = “Voluntary response to question” (here and in following tables).
** DK/RA = “Don’t know, or refused to answer question” (here and in following tables).

This predominant religious identity carries over into the perceived role of Islam in political life. See Table 3.173 When asked how much of a role they thought Islam played in the political life of their country, most Muslims saw Islam playing a very large or fairly large role. Comparing the 2002 data to the 2005 data does not suggest an overall trend.

Table 3. Role of Islam in Political Life (2002 data corrected March 3, 2007)

(Year of Data) Very Large Role Fairly Large Role Fairly Small Role Very Small Role DK/RA
Turkey 2005              30                   32                      16                     14            8=100
Turkey 2002              21                   25                      19                     24          11=100
Pakistan 2005           38                    24                      12                       9         17=100
Pakistan 2002           35                    21                      11                      16        17=100
Lebanon 2005           22                    32                      35                       5           6=100
Lebanon 2002           33                    38                      15                       8           6=100
Jordan 2005              10                    20                     49                      19           2=100
Jordan 2002              25                    25                     27                      22           0=99
Morocco 2005            57                    18                      9                        9           7=100
Indonesia 2005          33                    52                     11                       2           2=100
Indonesia 2002          39                    47                     10                       2           2=100

Although no overall trend may exist between the 2002 to the 2005 data in Table 3, Muslims themselves believe that the religion of Islam is playing a generally greater or equal role in their countries, compared to a few years ago. See Table 4.174

Table 4. Greater or Lesser Role of Islam in Politics, Compared to a Few Years Ago

Country Greater Role Lesser Role No Change/VR DK/RA
Turkey             47            32             14            7=100
Pakistan          48            23              12            16=99
Lebanon          35            17              25           23=100
Jordan            18            43              38             1=100
Morocco          57            28               4            11=100
Indonesia        73           15                9               2=99

The 2005 Pew Report shows the difficulty in trying to define Muslim extremism. The survey asked Muslims to define what Islamic extremism means to them by choosing between two options: (1) advocating the legal imposition of strict Shari’ah on all Muslims, or (2) using violence to get rid of non-Muslim influences in their country. See Table 5.175 Because the two options are both marks of the position of traditionalist Islam, adding the two together would likely yield the minimum number of traditionalist Muslims in each country. Strict Shari’ah and the potential use of militant jihad are marks of the position of traditionalist Islam.

Table 5. What Islamic Extremism Means...Impose strict Shari'ah on all Muslims, or Use violence to remove all non-Muslim influences

Country Impose Strict Shari’ah Use Violence to Remove DK/RA

Turkey              48                              16                    36=100
Pakistan            36                              22                    42=100
Lebanon            35                              46                    19=100
Jordan              36                              60                      4=100        
Morocco            20                              53                    27=100
Indonesia          50                              30                    20=100

After noting support for possible meanings of Islamic extremism, the 2005 Pew Report turns to the more significant question of the nature of the perceived threats posed by Islamic extremism. Individuals were asked what concerned them most about Islamic extremism in their own country. Options included: it is violent, it will lead to people having fewer personal freedoms and choices, it will divide the country, and it will set back economic development. See Table 6.176

Table 6. Perceived Threats of Islamic Extremism in One’s Country

Country Is Violent Fewer Freedoms Divides the Country Sets Back Development None/VR DK/RA
Turkey          25              28                       29                               9                    2       6=99
Pakistan       17              15                       24                              28                    5     12=101
Lebanon       24              36                       29                               9                    3       1=102
Jordan         21              37                       26                              15                    1       0=100
Morocco       37              20                       24                              14                    1      4=100
Indonesia     41              20                       19                             15                     2      3=100

It is interesting that in Table 6 the mean scores for violence (27.5), loss of freedom (26.0), and division of country (25.2) are so close to each other. In these Islamic countries the concern over violent Islamic extremism—or, more precisely, violence from Islamic traditionalism and terrorism—is essentially as intense as the concern over having fewer personal freedoms or having a country with greater divisions, as a result of Islamic extremism. This suggests a level of acceptance regarding violence and terrorism within Islamic societies that is fundamentally higher than is usually found in western societies, at least by comparison with the other accompanying threats.

Additional data from the 2007 Pew Study survey seems to bear this out. Individuals were posed the following question, with responses summarized in Table 7:

Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?177

Table 7. How Often Terrorist Acts against Civilians Justified

(Muslim respondents only/April 2006 data)

Table 7a. Muslims in Europe

Justified USA*   Britain France Germany Spain
Often         1          3        6          1         6  
Sometimes 7        12       10         6        10
Rarely        5         9        19         6         9
Never       78       70        64       83        69
DK/RA        9        6          1         3          7
Total       100     100       100       99      101

* = USA Muslim respondent only data from May 2007.

Table 7b. Muslims only in Muslim Countries

Justified Egypt Turkey Indonesia Pakistan Jordan Nigeria
Often          8  
Sometimes 20    14          8            7         24       38
Rarely        25      9         18           8         28       23
Never        45     61         71          69        43       28
DK/RA         3     14          1            8          0         3
Total        101    101       100          99      100      100

Based on Table 7 data, the number of Muslims who view terrorist acts against civilians as justified often or sometimes is quite high, ranging to over 20 percent in Egypt and Jordan, and over 40 percent in Nigeria.178 To grasp the full extent of the acceptance of terrorist acts among Muslims surveyed, one must add all three categories of those who see terrorism as ever justified—often, sometimes, and rarely. I have done this below in Table 8.

Table 8. How Often Terrorist Acts against Civilians Justified
(Muslim respondents only/April 2006 data)

Table 8a. Muslims in Europe

Justified USA*     Britain France Germany Spain
Ever**    13          24        35        13        25   
Never      78          70        64        83        69   
DK/RA       9           6          1          3          7   
Total      100        100      100        99       101   

* = USA data from May 2007.
** = Aggregated data from respondents, the sum of all responses that said that terrorist acts can ever be justified—often, sometimes, and rarely.

Table 8b. Muslims only in Muslim Countries

Justified Egypt Turkey Indonesia Pakistan Jordan Nigeria
Ever**      53      26          28         22         57      69
Never        45      61          71         69         43      28
DK/RA         3      14            1          8           0        3
Total        101     101        100        99       100     100

As an example, data from Table 8 show that in the United States 13 percent of all Muslims believe that some terrorist acts against civilians can be justified. If one extrapolates this sample to the 2007 Pew Study estimate of 2.35 million Muslims in America, this could translate into as many as 300,000 American Muslims who find certain terrorist acts justified.179 By comparison, the percentages of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, and Nigeria who responded that certain acts of terror can be justified exceeded 50 percent.

This data does not appear to be anomalous. The 2005 Pew Report followed the above general question, about Muslim perception of terrorist acts being justified, with a specific question about the use of suicide bombing against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq: Were such terrorist actions justifiable or not? See Table 9.180

Table 9. Are Suicide Bombings against Americans and Westerners in Iraq Justifiable?

Country Justifiable Not Justifiable DK/RA
Turkey         24             62          14=100
Pakistan       29             56          15=100
Lebanon       49             41          10=100
Jordan         49             43            8=100
Morocco       56             40            4=100
Indonesia     26             67            7=100

The approximately one quarter to one half of surveyed Muslims who responded that terrorist acts in Iraq against Americans and other Westerners were justifiable corresponds roughly to the data in Table 8 for Muslims within Muslim countries and their rates of ever finding terrorist acts justified. By country, there is apparent agreement between these data sets.

We cannot say how many of these Muslims who justify terrorist acts would self-identify with radical, conservative, or neotraditionalist Islamic positions, all of which leave open the possibility of legitimate, violent jihad. However, it is important to note that the survey question used to gather the data for Tables 7 and 8 specifically asked about violence being justified “to defend Islam.” This is the language of jihad and, because of this, we may reasonably infer that Muslim respondents’ personal acceptance of violent jihad was reflected in their rates of finding acts of terror justified.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 11:22