Monday, June 26, 2006

More mysteries from the Pew Global Attitudes Survey

Let me just start by saying that we all know people's responses to questions on attitude surveys are often mysterious (not to mention ambiguous), and the results of such polling always have to be taken with a grain of salt. Answers are often affected by very minor and superficial details in the wording of the questions, and I suspect people often use their responses to blow off steam or to strike poses rather than giving their genuine considered opinions. I recognize all that, so I don't want any of you to think that I'm taking these particular results too seriously, or that I'm naive enough to think that they all have clear and significant meanings.

Nevertheless ... the results of the last survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project continue to generate a certain amount of curiosity and puzzlement, and I can't help feeling intrigued about some of them.

=> A week or so ago, there was some buzz regarding changes in respondents' attitudes about the US and Israel around the world since 2005. Among other things, Europeans expressed more favorable views toward Israel and, correspondingly, significantly less favorable views about the Palestinians. (Britain & Spain were partial exceptions ... and, in fact, the ferocity and one-sidedness of Spaniards' hostility to Israel remain quite striking. For some reason, the results also indicated that Spain is more strongly anti-American than other major European countries--even France--and that unfavorable attitudes toward the US have increased quite sharply since 2005. Between 2005 & 2006, favorable opinions of the US went from 41% to 23%.)

=> Lately, I've noticed discussions about some curious patterns in attitudes about and by Muslims, especially in Europe. For example, according to this Pew report on "The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other" ...
Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical, violent, and as lacking tolerance. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy - as well as violent and fanatical.
No surprises there, I guess. But some of the details are more surprising. For example ...
The chasm between Muslims and the West is also seen in judgments about how the other civilization treats women. Western publics, by lopsided margins, do not think of Muslims as "respectful of women." But half or more in four of the five Muslim publics surveyed say the same thing about people in the West.
I find the opposition in attitudes here less surprising than the fact that it's asymmetrical. (That is, it's clear that Muslims are more likely to see westerners as "respectful of women" than vice-versa. I suspect that men & women in Muslim countries responded differently to this question.)

It's also worth noting that Muslims living in Europe and the US were much more likely to describe westerners as "respectful of women" than Muslims living in non-western Muslim countries. (I suspect that for many Muslims living in countries like Pakistan or Jordan, their main sources of information about western treatment of women are movies, internet pornography, and the sermons they hear in mosques.)
For the most part, Muslim publics feel more embittered toward the West and its people than vice versa. Muslim opinions about the West and its people have worsened over the past year and by overwhelming margins, Muslims blame Westerners for the strained relationship between the two sides.
To quote the punch-line of a famous Sidney Morgenbesser joke, "yeah, yeah."

=> But now here is a real surprise:
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But there are some positive indicators as well, including the fact that in most Muslim countries surveyed there has been a decline in support for terrorism. [....]
In Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia, there have been substantial declines in the percentages saying suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam against its enemies. The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, likely in response to the devastating terrorist attack in Amman last year; 29% of Jordanians view suicide attacks as often or sometimes justified, down from 57% in May 2005.

Confidence in Osama bin Laden [just think about that phrase for a second! --JW] also has fallen in most Muslim countries in recent years. This is especially the case in Jordan, where just 24% express at least some confidence in bin Laden now, compared with 60% a year ago. A sizable number of Pakistanis (38%) continue to say they have at least some confidence in the al Qaeda leader to do the right thing regarding world affairs, but significantly fewer do so now than in May 2005 (51%). However, Nigeria's Muslims represent a conspicuous exception to this trend; 61% of Nigeria's Muslims say they have at least some confidence in bin Laden, up from 44% in 2003.

The belief that terrorism is justifiable in the defense of Islam, while less extensive than in previous surveys, still has a sizable number of adherents. Among Nigeria's Muslim population, for instance, nearly half (46%) feel that suicide bombings can be justified often or sometimes in the defense of Islam. Even among Europe's Muslim minorities, roughly one-in-seven in France, Spain, and Great Britain feel that suicide bombings against civilian targets can at least sometimes be justified to defend Islam against its enemies.
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These shifts might appear to support the analysis offered by Brendan O'Leary & Karin von Hippel --the key factor that reduces Muslim support for terrorist murder of civilians is the perception that Islamist terrorists are directly targeting Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims. Perhaps one possible implication is that, on balance, the ongoing conflict in Iraq is reducing (expressed) Muslim support for terrorism around the world?

However, before we get too excited about this reduced "confidence in Osama bin Laden," it's worth bearing in mind that, according to the poll results, a solid majority of Muslims deny that he had anything to do with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. (This is especially bizarre given that bin Laden himself has already admitted it ... but we all know that when the will to believe or disbelieve is strong enough, no amount of evidence can overcome it.)

Curiously enough, the only country in which the proportion of Muslims willing to admit Arab involvement in the September 11 attacks was (slightly) higher than the proportion denying it was (of all places) France. At the other end, only 15% of Pakistanis are willing to admit it, followed by 16% in Indonesia and (this surprised me) Turkey (!).

=> With respect to Europe, the two countries where some of the polling results struck me as especially puzzling and intriguing were Spain and Britain.

In most major western European countries and the US, majorities of non-Muslims expressed overall "favorable" attitudes toward Muslims (whatever that means). For example, the relevant figures were 54% in the US, 65% in the US, and 63% in Britain (and the percentages expressing explicitly unfavorable impressions were relatively small.) The biggest exception is Spain, where only 29% indicated a positive overall view of Muslims. (This was followed by Germany, with 36%.) Curiously enough, Muslims in Spain do not reciprocate this dislike--82% expressed overall favorable attitudes toward Christians. (On the other hand, 91% of Muslims in France expressed an overall favorable attitude toward Christians, which looks suspiciously high to me, so it's hard to know what these figures really mean.)

Furthermore, according to the Pew report ...
- Fully 41% of the general public in Spain says most or many Muslims in their country support Islamic extremists. But just 12% of Spain's Muslims say most or many of the country's Muslims support extremists like al Qaeda.
These relatively high proportions of Spaniards explicitly expressing dislike and distrust of Muslims can't be attributed exclusively to the Madrid mega-terror attack, since a similar (though admittedly much less deadly) terrorist attack occurred in London.

And it's not just Muslims. When asked about attitudes toward Jews, relatively few western respondents said that they don't like Jews. In some cases, this may simply mean that respondents know that explicit expressions of anti-semitism are no longer respectable, so the figures should be taken with a grain of salt, but the comparisons between countries are still illuminating. "Favorable" ratings of Jews were 77% in the US, 74% in Britain, 86% in France, and 69% in Germany. Even in Russia, 59% of respondents claimed to have an overall favorable impression of Jews. In Spain, the corresponding figure was 45%, by far the lowest in western Europe. On this questions, Spanish Muslims agree, with 29% expressing overall favorable impressions of Jews. Again, this figure is lower than for Muslims in Britain, Germany, and France.

(World-wide figures for Muslims, in Europe as well as Muslim-majority countries, tend to support the hypothesis that anti-semitism is epidemic among Muslims. This is no surprise. In Jordan, for example, only 1% indicate favorable attitudes toward Jews--and perhaps that was an error in transcription. The corresponding figures are 2% for Egypt, 6% for Pakistan, 15% for Turkey, and 17% for Indonesia. It's interesting to note that Muslims in Europe express lower levels of hostility against Jews than Muslims in non-western countries. In France, the proportion of Muslims expressing favorable attitudes toward Jews is actually a majority, 71% ... but here, I admit, I am a bit skeptical that they really mean it.)

So what is it about Spain? Are Spaniards really so much more anti-semitic, Islamophobic, and anti-American than other western Europeans, or are they just more honest about it? And in either case, why? Perhaps some of you who know more about Spanish society, culture, & politics than I do have some thoughts on this matter?

=> Then there's Britain. Some of the questions here have to do with a cluster of findings captured in the title of a recent Guardian article: "Poll shows Muslims in Britain are the most anti-western in Europe". What's odd is that there is a "significant mismatch" in this respect.
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The poll, by the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project, asked Muslims and non-Muslims about each other in 13 countries. In most, it found suspicion and contempt to be mostly mutual, but uncovered a significant mismatch in Britain. [Actually, there is also a mismatch in Spain, though in the opposite direction. --JW]

The poll found that 63% of all Britons had a favourable opinion of Muslims, down slightly from 67% in 2004, suggesting last year's London bombings did not trigger a significant rise in prejudice. Attitudes in Britain were more positive than in the US, Germany and Spain (where the popularity of Muslims has plummeted to 29%), and about the same as in France.

Less than a third of British non-Muslims said they viewed Muslims as violent, significantly fewer than non-Muslims in Spain (60%), Germany (52%), the US (45%) and France (41%).

By contrast, the poll found that British Muslims represented a "notable exception" in Europe, with far more negative views of westerners than Islamic minorities elsewhere on the continent. A significant majority viewed western populations as selfish, arrogant, greedy and immoral. Just over half said westerners were violent. While the overwhelming majority of European Muslims said westerners were respectful of women, fewer than half British Muslims agreed. Another startling result found that only 32% of Muslims in Britain had a favourable opinion of Jews, compared with 71% of French Muslims.
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"David T" at the group blog Harry's Place spelled out some of these matters a little further ("What British Muslims Think" - June 23, 2006) ...
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The Pew Global Attitudes project survey, as reported in the Guardian, finds as follows:

Public opinion in Britain is mostly favourable towards Muslims, but the feeling is not requited by British Muslims, who are among the most embittered in the western world, according to a global poll published yesterday.
...
The poll found that 63% of all Britons had a favourable opinion of Muslims, down slightly from 67% in 2004, suggesting last year's London bombings did not trigger a significant rise in prejudice. Attitudes in Britain were more positive than in the US, Germany and Spain (where the popularity of Muslims has plummeted to 29%), and about the same as in France.
Less than a third of British non-Muslims said they viewed Muslims as violent, significantly fewer than non-Muslims in Spain (60%), Germany (52%), the US (45%) and France (41%).

By contrast, the poll found that British Muslims represented a "notable exception" in Europe, with far more negative views of westerners than Islamic minorities elsewhere on the continent. A significant majority viewed western populations as selfish, arrogant, greedy and immoral. Just over half said westerners were violent.

While the overwhelming majority of European Muslims said westerners were respectful of women, fewer than half British Muslims agreed.

Another startling result found that only 32% of Muslims in Britain had a favourable opinion of Jews, compared with 71% of French Muslims.

Across the board, Muslim attitudes in Britain more resembled public opinion in Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia than elsewhere in Europe.

And on the whole, British Muslims were more pessimistic than those in Germany, France and Spain about the feasibility of living in a modern society while remaining devout.


The Pew poll found that British Muslims are far more likely than their European counterparts to harbour conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks. Only 17% believed that Arabs were involved, compared with 48% in France.

There was general agreement that relations are bad, but Britons as a whole were much less likely than other Europeans to blame Muslims. More Britons faulted westerners (27%) than Muslims (25%), with a third saying both are equally responsible.

British Muslims were less ambivalent. Nearly half blamed westerners.

Pew also reports that, globally:

Muslims differ over whether there is a struggle in their country between Islamic fundamentalists and groups wanting to modernize society. But solid majorities of those who perceive such a struggle side with the modernizers.
Posted by david t at June 23, 2006 12:37 PM | TrackBack
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"Across the board, Muslim attitudes in Britain more resembled public opinion in Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia than elsewhere in Europe." That's odd, isn't it? Why should that be?

Curious,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Regarding "Why British Muslims stand out," some informed speculation from James Wimberley (at The Reality-Based Community).

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