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Muslims fear jihadists, especially those closest to them

The opinions of those who live with terrorism on a daily basis should not be overlooked or underestimated

Valentina Colombo

Published: Updated:

“It is certain that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.” So wrote Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, former editor of the international Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, following the Beslan school hostage crisis on Sept. 3, 2004.

It was an angry cry because, as the article said, “terrorists are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image.” These words are all the more significant because they were spoken by a Saudi Muslim, whose country gave birth to the main terrorist of our times, Osama bin Laden, as well as most of the 9/11 bombers.

After 10 years, the Middle East and North Africa continue to experience the disastrous consequences of the ideology that combines the Quranic precepts of the 7th century with a thirst for power and destruction. Since the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood has gained ground in the region, and violent Islamist extremism has overrun certain countries.

The closer the contact with an Islamist organization, the less people appreciate its work

Valentina Colombo

Between April and May 2014, before the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s advances in Iraq, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey that was published on July 1. The report was entitled “Concern about the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Negative views on al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.” The most noteworthy result of the survey is the growing concern over Islamist extremism in Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

In Lebanon, following the escalation of the Syrian crisis and of internal tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, growing concern over Islamist extremism increased from 81% in 2013 to 92% in 2014. Over the same period, in Tunisia there was a rise from 71% to 80%, in Egypt from 69% to 75%, in Jordan from 54% to 62%, and in Turkey from 37% to 50%.

Most participants had an unfavorable opinion of al-Qaeda: 92% in Lebanon, 85% in Turkey, 83% in Jordan, 81% in Egypt, 74% in Tunisia and 58% in Palestine.

The Palestinian movement Hamas is perceived negatively by 65% of Lebanese (79% of Christians, 65% of Sunnis and 44% of Shiites). In Jordan, Egypt and Palestine the figures are 61%, 61% and 53%, respectively. While 63% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip view Hamas unfavorably, only 47% of those in the West Bank do so. This suggests that the closer the contact with an Islamist organization, the less people appreciate its work.

In Turkey, 85% of respondents have an unfavorable opinion of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, followed by Egypt (83%) and Jordan (81%). In Lebanon, this view is shared by 88% of Sunnis, 69% of Christians, but only 13% of Shiites. In the Palestinian territories, 69% in Gaza (the stronghold of Sunni Hamas) display an aversion to Hezbollah, while this drops to 46% in the West Bank.

Suicide attacks

Another interesting aspect is people’s opinions about suicide attacks “against civilian objectives in order to defend Islam from its enemies.” It is important to highlight the ambiguity of the question, which seems to neglect the political purposes that suicide attacks usually have, as in the case in Israel. Moreover, they are sometimes carried out against Muslims.

In any case, 62% of Palestinians in Gaza are in favor, compared with 36% in the West Bank. In Lebanon, Shiites most support such attacks (37%). In Egypt, this decreases to 24%.

The report noted that in Lebanon in 2002, 74% of people surveyed justified suicide attacks. However, since 2005 - following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri - that stance has changed. This suggests that terrorism is justified when it is not experienced first-hand, and that it worries people as it comes closer to them. It would be interesting to repeat the survey taking into account ISIS’s growing presence.

The Middle East should start reflecting on a clear definition of terrorism and Islamist extremism, which are closely linked and widespread in various ways in this region. The Middle East, like the West, will soon have to consider the destructive consequences of preaching hate.

In some cases, when there is a direct link with Salafism and jihadism, such preaching leads to terrorism. In others, when it is influenced by the Brotherhood’s gradual approach, it represents an opportunity to spread dangerous ideas that condition the mind and push people to forceful action.

The opinions of those who live with terrorism on a daily basis and who are exposed to such threats, as observed from the results of the Pew report, should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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Valentina Colombo teaches Geopolitics of the Islamic World at the European University, Rome and Plural Islam at Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, Rome. She is Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, Brussels. She is member of the Board of Guarini Institute for Public Affairs at John Cabot University, Rome; member of the scientific board of the Center Di-con-per Donne, University Tor Vergata, Rome; member of the scientific board of the Institute of high Studies for Women, Rome. After graduating in Arabic Language and Literature from Cattolica University, Milan, she earned a PhD in Islamic Studies from Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples. She has been a member of Comitato per l'Islam Italiano, Ministry of Interior. She has published various studies on Islam, intellectuals and civil liberties. Her research focuses on the plurality of the Islamic world: radical Islam vs liberal intellectuals, radical Islam vs women's rights.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.