The recent events in Syria have reignited a familiar debate on the United States’ airwaves about Muslim extremism. Since before September 11, many Americans have equated Muslims with violent extremism, and presumed the Muslim world is an incubator for anti-Americanism and religious backwardness. To anyone who knows Muslims or has been to a majority-Muslim country or culture, the reality could not be more different: Most just want to live their lives in peace, and while thousands of Americans, both civilians and military, have perished at the hands of jihadi Muslims, many, many times more Muslims have befallen a similar fate or have been forced to live under oppressive laws that they do not support.
In light of the death toll of Islamic extremism, the outcome of a recent poll that surveyed Muslims across Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia comes as no surprise: A substantial majority of the world’s Muslims are concerned with the rise of Islamic extremism in their countries.
When taken in the context of individual countries or societies, however, the picture begins to get slightly more muddled and provides some important insight into jihadi fundamentalism and its role in the modern Muslim world. While a majority of Muslims have negative opinions of Al-Qaeda (57%) and the Taliban (51%), the same cannot be said of Hamas and Hezbollah, of whom less than half of Muslims (45% and 42% respectively) have unfavorable opinions. Similarly, when asked if acts of violence in the name of Islam, including suicide bombings, were ever justified, vast majorities in countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, where civilians have been routinely targeted by militant Islamist groups, said no, while Palestinians residing in the Occupied Territories were the only polled population in which a majority believe that suicide bombings were "often" or "sometimes" justified (62%).
Far from suggesting that Palestinians are all terrorists, these numbers (both those who support such acts and those who condemn them) reveal the reality and politics of Islamist terrorism. First and foremost, it suggests that support for Islamist terrorism and suicide bombing comes from outside the population that it targets. Suicide and other bombings are nearly daily occurrences in Pakistan and Nigeria, carried out by groups seeking to undermine the existing government and which have killed thousands of Pakistanis and Nigerians. The same can be said for many other countries which have been the targets of suicide terror campaigns.
The motives of such campaigns come in stark contrast to those groups in the Middle East who have taken up the Palestinian cause. Despite the Islamist rhetoric of Hamas (an Arabic acronym for the Movement of Islamic Resistance) and Hizbullah (Arabic for Party of God), their fundamental goals are political, not religious: the reclamation of the state of Palestine. The fact that such a large percentage of Muslims in the Palestinian territories support such violent acts is emblematic of this difference: While Pakistanis and Nigerians have felt the brunt of suicide and Islamic terrorism, Palestinians have not, long seeing it as a form of resistance to Israeli occupation, a way to stand up to a foe that is far more powerful.
This data reinforces a simple truth that Americans have so far largely failed to understand: Muslims themselves are the greatest victims of Islamic extremism and the vast majority of them are not extremists. Without acknowledging this fact, it is impossible to understand Islamic extremism, its causes, and its cures, while incorrect interpretations of the data will only make it worse. By understanding that Islamic extremism is first and foremost a political movement and not a religious one, the West can more accurately help the Muslim world address the issues that cause such a movement: economic deprivation, political deprivation, and, in the case of Palestinians, statelessness. Muslims are worried about it and we should be too — but in the right context and for the right reasons.