Finding the 88%

How to Measure What Muslims Really Believe

How many Muslims support terrorism? About 12 percent. Here’s why that’s worth knowing.

01.10.15 11:45 AM ET

In the wake of this week’s horrific terrorist attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery outside of Paris, both Right and Left went hunting for condemnations.

On the Right, pundits pointed out how the satirical magazine had attacked Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others—yet condemned the fact that only (some) Muslims saw fit to massacre its editors. For example, pundit/comedian Bill Maher (liberal on many issues, but not on Islam) said in the wake of the attacks, “I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this. But here’s the important point: Hundreds of millions of them support an attack like this. They applaud an attack like this.”

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity of Fox News gave a platform to London Imam Anjem Choudary, who, playing to type, espoused sharia law worldwide and justified (if not quite supported) the attacks, saying that freedom of expression doesn’t extend to insulting Muhammad. And in an op-ed in USA Today, Choudary paraphrased the Koran: “Whoever insults a Prophet, kill him.”

On the Left, progressive Muslims and their allies have strenuously argued that, in fact, there is “no shortage of condemnations from Muslims of all sects and nationalities,” in the words of Qasim Rashid, writing in OnFaith. Other progressive Muslims have complained of a double standard: Buddhists aren’t asked to condemn attacks on Muslims in Burma, nor all white people on the attack at the NAACP office in Colorado. Not just Choudary quotes the Koran—Rashid did too, citing verse 5:33: “to kill one innocent life… is to kill all humanity.”

Well, who’s right? Is Islam the “religion of peace” or a theocracy with little space for blasphemy or disagreement?

Both, obviously. Just as in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths, there are fanatics, conservatives, moderates, progressives, and far-left-progressives in the Muslim world—or worlds, really, since 1.6 billion Muslims live in wildly different social contexts. Both liberals and sensible conservatives have already conceded this; they understand that there is a breadth of opinion from, say, scholar Reza Aslan to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Maher’s claim, however, is that the moderates, progressives, and lefties are far, far outnumbered—and that Muslim’s fanatics have far more power than, say, Christian or Hindu fundamentalists.

These are important factual questions, and they tend not to be answered by liberals, who label them as Islamophobic. This tactic is misguided.

If we can quantify, somehow, the extent of Muslim support for—and opposition to—terrorist attacks like the one in Paris, we can combat ignorance not with insult, but with facts.

How to do it, though?

One way—maybe the most effective—is to hunt for the most influential Muslims in the world. Immediately, such an effort flounders. Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, which has a centralized hierarchy with the pope at the top (and even there, it’s worth noting that rank-and-file Catholics tend to be far to the left of the church hierarchy on social issues), there is no formal hierarchy in Sunni Islam, which accounts for about 90% of the total Muslim population. Religious Muslims are more like religious Jews, with varying ideological affinities, and various clerics holding sway even across ideological lines.

There have been several efforts to identify the most influential Muslims in the world. One, “The Muslim 500,” is a for-profit enterprise, though the list is compiled mostly by professors. Most of The Muslim 500 are those with temporal power: of the top 10, 6 are kings or political leaders, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (#1) and Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei (#3—and technically the “Supreme Leader” of Iran). Other than Khamenei, the most influential clerics on the list are Sheikh Ahmad Muhammed El-Tayeb (Egypt, #2), Ayatollah Ali Sistani (Iraq, #7)

But the influence of such clerics is hard to measure, and often regionally focused. One pattern that does emerge from such data is that some ‘moderate’ voices are actually far on the left of the spectrum of Muslim opinion. Qasim Rashid, the Muslim writer in OnFaith, is actually a member of the Ahmadiyya sect, founded in 1889 and regarded as heretical by many Muslims. Like the Baha’i and the Sufis, the Ahmadiyya are generally peace-loving and benevolent—and persecuted in much of the Muslim world.

A second way to measure Muslim public opinion is, well, to measure Muslim public opinion. Unfortunately, data is spotty for much of the Muslim world, and the question of social desirability bias seems particularly acute. Still, the best data we have is quite revealing.

According to a 2013 Pew Survey entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society,” in most countries, at least three quarters of Muslims polled “reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians.” Excluding Palestine and Afghanistan, where the numbers are higher for obvious political reasons, the highest percentages who approved of such tactics were 29 percent in Egypt and 26 percent in Bangladesh.

On the contrary, in most countries, more than half of Muslims polled “say they are somewhat or very concerned about religious extremism.” This certainly makes sense, given that the majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslim.

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Is Bill Maher right that “hundreds of millions of Muslims” support violence such as the attack in Paris?

This took some figuring. The Pew report, which appears to be the best data currently available, doesn’t add up all of the numbers. But I did. There are approximately 1,083,021,825 Muslims in the 21 countries they polled—68% of the global total. Based on the country-by-country percentages in the Pew report, that means about 133 million support the suicide bombing or other forms of violence against civilians. Extrapolating the data—which is probably inaccurate since American and European Muslims probably support violence significantly less, while Iranian Muslims may support it more—that means about 195 million Muslims worldwide support suicide bombing and other acts of violence against civilians.

So Bill Maher is just barely wrong. There are not “hundreds of millions” of Muslims who support attacks like that against Charlie Hebdo. Of course, if you round to the nearest hundred million, then Maher is right.

More importantly, the global percentage is just 12 percent. The Anjem Choudarys of the world get the media attention—perhaps for lack of Muslim leadership, perhaps out of Western media bias—but nine out of ten Muslims disagree with him. For now.