While scientific polling has found a decline in support for suicide bombings over the decade since 9/11 in most major Muslim countries, minorities of respondents – in some cases, large minorities – continue to regard them as justified “in defense of Islam.”
The percentages extrapolate to tens of millions of Muslims across Africa, the Middle East and Asia who hold that view.
In Nigeria, where at least 39 Christians were killed in a series of attacks Sunday – most of them at a Catholic church near the capital, Abuja – 34 percent of respondents in a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll last year expressed support for suicide bombings.
About 50 percent of Nigeria’s 155 million population is Muslim. Thirty-four percent of the Muslim population of Africa’s most populous country would amount to 26 million people.
(Pew surveyed 1,000 Nigerian adults in what it described as a “[m]ulti-stage cluster sample stratified by all six geo-political regions and Lagos and the urban/rural population and proportional to population size.” It gave a margin of error of plus/minus four percent.)
The radical group that claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attacks, Boko Haram, said it would continue its violent campaign until Boko Haram prisoners are released, Nigeria’s constitution is suspended, and Islamic law (shari’a) is enforced. Shari’a was introduced in 12 northern states, where most Muslims live, a decade ago.
It was the second Christmas in a row marked by Boko Haram killings. Last year at least 32 people were killed and more than 70 wounded in three bombings targeting Christian areas on Christmas Eve. Those bombings were carried out in Jos, a city located roughly on the divide between Muslim north and Christian south which has frequently witnessed attacks, including deadly clashes in 2001, 2008 and January 2010. Jos was again targeted this year, with a bomb blast and gunfire at a church. No-one was killed in that incident.
Also known as the “Nigerian Taliban” or “Nigerian Jihad,” Boko Haram is reported to have links to Somalia’s al-Shabaab and to al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It focus has been mostly universal enforcement of shari’a in Nigeria and a purge of what it sees as Western influences in education and culture. Its attacks targeted Nigerians until last August, when the group was blamed for a suicide bombing at U.N. headquarters in Abuja that killed 23 people.
Last month the U.S. Embassy in Abuja warned U.S. citizens to avoid hotels in the capital frequented by Westerners, citing information that Boko Haram planning to attack those facilities.
‘It’s not Islam’
As Islamic organizations in Nigeria and beyond reacted to the latest violence, some sought to distance Islam from the terrorist attacks.
Mujaid Nya, a spokesman for Jama'atu Nasril Islam – an umbrella body for Nigerian Muslims – said Islam did not teach anyone to take up arms against their neighbors. Nigeria’s Punch daily quoted him as saying Boko Haram should not be linked to Islam, which preaches peace.
Nigerian Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Isa told the News Agency of Nigeria that the attackers were not adherents of any faith, while Alhaji Quasim Badrudeen of the Muslim Students Society in Lagos described the attacks as “unfortunate and un-Islamic.”
Further afield, Muslim Council of Britain secretary-general Farooq Murad said, “There is nothing in our faith of Islam that can condone attacks on places of worship or on Christians as we have seen today.”
“Sectarian attacks as we have seen in Nigeria and in Iraq last week are reprehensible – people who claim to carry out such carnage in the name of Islam are completely mistaken and are as much enemy of Muslims as anyone else,” he added.
In Canada, Islamic Supreme Council founder Syed Soharwardy called the attacks “an extremely deplorable crime that has been committed by those people who follow the hate-mongering ideology of Wahhabism. It’s not Islam. This is an un-Islamic action.”
(The Wahhabism reference is to the strict interpretation of Sunni Islam followed by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Named for an 18th century scholar, Wahhabism opposes diversity within Islam and is especially intolerant towards Shi’ites. The fundamentalist Nour party that did unexpectedly well in Egypt’s recent elections is Wahhabist, although more commonly labeled “Salafist.”)
Despite the statements made by these groups, however, the Pew Global Attitudes Project poll continues to find support among Muslims for terrorism – specifically suicide bombings – and for al-Qaeda.
Although support for suicide bombings “in defense of Islam” has generally dropped over the decade since al-Qaeda attacked America, it remains considerable in some places in a 2011 Pew poll – 35 percent in Lebanon, 20 in Israel, 13 percent in Jordan, 10 percent in Indonesia and four percent in Pakistan.
Nigeria was not included in the 2011 poll, but a 2010 Pew poll 34 percent of Nigerian Muslim respondents voiced support for suicide bombings.
The same 2010 poll found 49 percent of Nigerian Muslim respondents viewed al-Qaeda favorably. By comparison, levels of support for the terrorist group in the other countries surveyed were: Jordan 34 percent, Indonesia 23 percent, Egypt 20 percent, Pakistan 18 percent, Turkey four percent and Lebanon three percent.
The two exceptions to the generally downward trend are Egypt and Turkey. In Egypt, the proportion of respondents supporting suicide bombings has risen over the past five years, from eight percent in 2007 to 28 percent this year in the Pew poll. Turkey also marked a small increase in recent years, from three percent in 2008 to seven percent in 2011.
The one Muslim population where a majority retains support for suicide bombing in the Pew poll is the inhabitants of the Palestinian territories – 68 percent of respondents in 2011. The Palestinian territories also accounted for the highest level of support for al-Qaeda in 2011 – 28 percent. Other countries’ scores were Indonesia 22 percent, Egypt 21 percent, Jordan 15 percent, Turkey five percent and Lebanon two percent.
Earlier Pew polling on the suicide bombing issue, carried out in 2007, included other Muslim populations. It found support for suicide bombings among 39 percent of Muslims in Mali, 26 percent in Malaysia, 21 percent in Kuwait, 20 percent in Bangladesh, 18 percent in Ethiopia, 18 percent in Senegal, 11 percent in Morocco and 11 percent in Tanzania.