Daesh is even more unpopular among Middle East Arabs when they learn more about it

by | August 2, 2016

It’s not news that Daesh (or ISIS or ISIL or IS) is wildly unpopular among Middle East Arabs. Survey after survey has shown general disdain for the self-proclaimed Islamic State, its goals, and its tactics, whether the population being surveyed is Arabs in general or specifically Muslims. But a new survey provides an interesting new twist.

Previous surveys have asked Middle East Arabs why they think Daesh has managed to recruit so many young men to join its ranks. The most recent is probably the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab youth survey. Their findings, reported back in April, were that most young Arabs think lack of jobs and opportunities is the number one recruitment driver for Daesh.

That makes sense, and it’s almost certainly a major factor in explaining Daesh’s support. But a survey done along with the upcoming 4th iteration of the Arab Barometer has sussed out an interesting additional possibility.

The survey was confined to Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, and it asked three basic questions:

  • To what extent do you agree with the goals of the Islamic State;
  • To what extent to do you support the Islamic State’s use of violence; and
  • To what extent do you believe the Islamic State’s tactics are compatible with the teachings of Islam?

The broad findings are in line with previous surveys. To be more conservative in interpreting the results, Mark Tessler, Michael Robbins, and Amaney A. Jamal took the additional step of adding the “don’t know”/“won’t say” results to the results of those who agree/support/believe. The reason for this is that people who hold unpopular or extremist positions often avoid admitting them. But even with the “don’t know”/“won’t say” results added to the supporters, agreement with Daesh’s goals tops out at 8.5% in Algeria, and is only 1.5% in Jordan.

2016 Arab Barometer Daesh survey chart

But the really interesting part of this survey is that they tried a little experiment on the survey respondents.

The experiment involved splitting the respondents into 5 groups. Each group got a slightly different introductory script before the survey questions:

  • The control group got nothing;
  • Treatment A got a text that told respondents that Daesh has emerged as a potent force in the Middle East, that its goal is to extend its self-proclaimed caliphate across the Muslim world, and that it has killed many Muslims and non-Muslims in pursuit of this aim.
  • Treatment B got the Treatment A text plus that another of Daesh’s objectives is to limit Shiite influence across the Muslim world and to confront Iranian-led Shiite forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
  • Treatment C got the Treatment A text plus that another of Daesh’s objectives is to defend Islam from attacks by secular leaders and other elites whose goal is to limit the role of Islam in government and public life.
  • Treatment D got the Treatment A text plus that another of Daesh’s objectives is to counter intervention in the region by the United States and other Western powers who have engaged in military attacks against it.

All of those objectives are stated objectives of Daesh.

Here is the result of the first question (“do you agree with the goals of the Islamic State”), according to experimental group, specifically for younger and less-educated men:

2016 Arab Barometer Daesh survey experiment results

Now, because of the small sample, the difference between the control and Treatment A is not statistically significant. But the difference between the control and the other 3 groups is.

Younger and less-educated men are Daesh’s key demographic, but this survey result seems to show that the more you tell them about Daesh, the less they support it.

The differences between Treatments B, C, and D are probably not statistically significant. Nevertheless, we can speculate a bit on them. It seems that young and poorly-educated men are least affected by telling them that Daesh opposes Western powers. They’re most affected by telling them that Daesh is anti-Shiite, but do bear in mind that these surveys are done in countries where there isn’t all that much Sunni-Shiite antagonism.

But intriguingly, it turns out that young and poorly-educated Middle East Arab men appear to be surprisingly supportive of secular authorities and secularism, at least in the countries surveyed. They’re more concerned that Daesh is opposed to secularism than that they’re opposed to Western influence. That’s not something you usually hear in the narrative about that demographic. But it’s certainly something that should inspire hope for secularists.

The takeaway of this survey, combined with previous surveys, is that the most effective way to fight Daesh seems not to be sending in Western militaries, but rather educating and improving the social and economic opportunities in the countries Daesh primarily recruits from. Granted, this is not a revolutionary suggestion, and it’s certainly in line with the general theory that education and opportunity are the key to combating religious extremism. But now we’re getting empirical evidence that supports the strategy in this particular case.

2 thoughts on “Daesh is even more unpopular among Middle East Arabs when they learn more about it

  1. Diana MacPherson

    Nicely written researched and written article, Indi!

  2. Tim Underwood

    Education is the cause and the cure. If those young men knew the currently available histories of the Abrahamic religions, they would never, ever, consider joining in with those Wahhabis. Young, Christian, Canadian men would probably have much different views if they knew the currently available histories of the Abrahamic religions. In both camps, the internal religious messages are being revered and practiced. What has gone missing is critical learning.

    I imagine there would be as much reaction against compulsory, critical, religious studies here in Canada as there would be in Egypt.


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