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ISIS, Syria, and democracy: what the Arab world really thinks

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What does the Arab Middle East believe about ISIS? About the Syrian civil war and what the world should do about it? About democracy and about the state of its own societies?

The Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies just released its 2015 Arab Public Opinion Index, and it offers some valuable and, in places, surprising answers to those questions.

The report presents the findings from public opinion polls based on 18,311 face-to-face interviews conducted in 12 Arab countries: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Here are a few of the most interesting findings:

  • The Arab world is overwhelmingly opposed to ISIS: 89 percent said they have negative views of the group, compared with only 7 percent who view it positively.
2015 Arab Public Opinion Index. NOTE: Spelling errors in the original.
  • There is no significant correlation between support for ISIS and religiosity: Favorable views of ISIS are equally prevalent among respondents who are "very religious" and those who are "not religious," and also equally prevalent among opponents and supporters of separation of religion and state.

The report reaches, based on that data, this conclusion: "Support for radical extremist organizations in the Arab world, where it exists, is rooted in political grievances within the Arab region and its conflicts, and not a religious ideology."

  • Pollsters asked respondents why they think ISIS's supporters back the group. Only one-third gave religious reasons: For example, 18 percent suggested ISIS's supporters back the group because they believe it is "abiding by Islamic principles." Most respondents cited political factors: 22 percent cited ISIS's "military achievements," and 13 percent cited ISIS's defiance of the West.

This would seem to provide some support for the argument that pushing back ISIS militarily would go a long way to eroding the group's appeal — perhaps even more so than countering its claims to religious authority.

  • Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) think that "no person/group has the right to declare followers of other religions to be infidels" — a standard practice of jihadist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda.
2015 Arab Public Opinion Index

The report also notes that most Arabs "oppose edicts ... which declare followers of varying interpretations of the same faith to be apostates."

This is important because this practice is not unique to ISIS, and in fact is rooted in the Wahhabist ideology prevalent in Saudi Arabia. These findings suggest that despite Saudi Arabia's efforts to spread Wahhabism around the Arab and wider Muslim world, the toxic practice of declaring others apostates — which contributes to ISIS recruitment as well as general sectarian violence — is rejected by the majority of Arabs.

  • When asked about the Syrian war, a large majority (62 percent) think that ousting the Assad regime is the ideal way to resolve the civil war; a mere 8 percent prefer a negotiated settlement or peace deal.
2015 Arab Public Opinion Index

It's not clear how much Arab public opinion on the Syrian conflict will translate into any real impact or action, for example in the form of non-Syrian Arabs joining rebel groups or sending them private donations. And it's not as if Arab governments, which are mostly non-democratic, feel especially beholden to public opinion on whether they sign on to any Syrian peace deal. But this result shows the degree to which public sentiment in the region lines up largely against Assad and on the side of the rebels.

  • Only 20 percent said that "democracy is incompatible with Islam," whereas 71 percent said they opposed or strongly opposed that statement.

Since the overwhelming majority of people in the Arab world are Muslims, the fact that a huge majority of Arabs believe democracy and Islam are compatible would seem to be good news for the prospects for democracy in the Arab world, even five years after the Arab Spring, during which many pro-democracy movements failed or devolved into war. So if someone tells you the Arab Spring destroyed Arabs' faith in democracy, it seems that person would be wrong.

  • Arabs generally do not see their societies as free: "When asked if the citizens of their home country were free to criticize their government without fear of retribution, 38 percent of the Arab public said no. Indeed, in some countries, such as in Sudan and in Egypt, outright majorities expressed the view that they were not free to openly criticize their own governments without fear."
2015 Arab Public Opinion Index