How people in the Middle East explain ISIS

My latest at LobeLog looks at a recent Zogby Research poll of people in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. It’s a wide-ranging poll with a lot of meat to it, but the most illuminating material to me was how people answered the question of what causes extremism:

Still, it was in the area of extremism and its causes where the poll generated its most interesting findings. When asked to rate eight factors on a 1-5 scale (where 1 means “very important factor”) in terms of their importance as a driver of religious extremism, respondents in all eight countries gave “anger at the U.S.” the fewest number of ones and twos, although that factor was still rated as important by a majority of respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey. Zogby argued that this was a sign that Barack Obama’s attempt to leave a “softer U.S. footprint in the region pays off.” However, when asked whether the United States is playing a positive or negative role in combating extremist sectarian violence, large majorities in each country said that the U.S. was playing a negative role.

Instead, the two most commonly cited factors in the development of religious extremism were “corrupt governments” and “extremist and/or incorrect religious ideas.” Other commonly cited factors, like “lack of education,” “poverty,” and “youth alienation” also speak to a consistent sense that extremism is an internal problem stemming from poor governance. Majorities in each of the eight countries except Iran agreed that “countering the messages and ideas promoted by recruiters for extremist groups” and “changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideals” were “most important” in terms of defeating violent extremist groups like the Islamic State. Within Iraq, majorities from all three of the country’s major ethno-religious groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi?a Arabs, and Kurds) agreed that “forming a more inclusive, representative government” is the best way to resolve the conflict there, but even larger majorities from each group said that they were “not confident” that such a government will be formed within the next five years.

Now, it should be noted that majorities in all eight countries still gave “anger at the US” a 1 or 2, but the fact that it was the least-cited factor in all eight countries is interesting. More interesting is the degree to which people identify corrupt, repressive, ineffective government as the biggest driver of extremism in the region, followed by religious figures preaching extremist messages. Now, who knows what any particular respondent means when he or she thinks about “extremism,” but this is a pretty clear statement about what people in the region want and need, which is “better government.”

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