Survey says ... al Qaeda?

Pew Research Center published the results of a recent Global Attitudes Project survey of Muslims. Folks were asked questions about Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, democracy, the role of Islam in government, and other related topics. You can read the whole report here. I was glad to see the report get some coverage. Here's a bit from CNN's "Muslims offer mixed views on Hamas, Hezbollah, reject al Qaeda":

The survey, conducted this spring in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, found that only in Nigeria did Muslim populations have anything approaching a favorable view of al Qaeda, with 49 percent expressing positive views and 34 percent holding an unfavorable opinion.

At least seven in 10 Muslims had unfavorable views of the group in Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, as did lesser majorities in Jordan and Indonesia, according to the study.

But views of Hamas and Hezbollah were more mixed. Both groups got favorable ratings from a majority of Jordanian Muslims, with 60 percent supporting Hamas and 55 percent holding favorable views of Hezbollah, Pew reported.

I always think it interesting how results from surveys such as these are reported. I mean, it's true that there are some Muslim populations that reject al Qaeda. In this survey, only four percent of Turks and three percent of Lebanese reported favorable views of the group. And of the seven countries surveyed, Nigeria was the friendliest to al Qaeda with one of every two Muslims showing support. But in Jordan, it's one in three Muslims. That's still remarkably high, isn't it? I'll be totally honest -- I want those percentages below where they are in Turkey and Lebanon. And about one of every four Muslims in Indonesia and one of every five Muslims in Egypt likes al Qaeda. Yes, I'm glad that majorities in those countries aren't sending money to al Qaeda or what not, but still, I can't quite interpret it as positive news. It's almost like the media report it as if it were an election. Yes, if these were voting numbers, al Qaeda would be rejected. But al Qaeda doesn't need a majority to be effective. And if it can get a solid, double-digit minority -- as it has in two-thirds of the countries asked about it -- I'm not sure "rejected" conveys the right tone.

Think of it this way, this survey about al Qaeda was done in just six countries with large Muslim populations. And it found over 150 million Muslims who like al Qaeda.

The Pew report suggested the survey showed positive news about public opinion in the Muslim world and most media outlets ran with that view. So I was also interested in how the Los Angeles Times went beyond the press release to read the actual report. They ended up using an altogether different approach:

A majority of Muslims around the world welcome a significant role for Islam in their countries' political life, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, but have mixed feelings toward militant religious groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to the survey, majorities in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Nigeria would favor changing the current laws to allow stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion. About 85% of Pakistani Muslims said they would support a law segregating men and women in the workplace.

Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and Jordan were among the most enthusiastic, with more than three-quarters of Muslims polled in those countries reporting positive views of Islam's influence in politics: either that Islam had a large role in politics, and that was a good thing, or that it played a small role, and that was bad.

Both the CNN report and Los Angeles Times report are good and helpful. Still, I think they serve to show how different outlets can use the same report, lead with different survey responses, and end up conveying very different stories.

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