One of the most alarming findings of a new poll of attitudes in four Muslim countries is that a majority of respondents say they support two of Al Qaeda's chief goals: They want strict Islamic law, or sharia, in Muslim countries and to "unify all Islamic countries into a single state, or Caliphate."
At first blush that would appear to align these Muslims with the interests of a sworn enemy of America. But a closer look at attitudes in Egypt and Pakistan, two of the countries surveyed, reveals a more nuanced perspective that also welcomes democracy and freedom of religion.
"The notions of the Caliphate and sharia resonate with deep-seated values and cultural history, and Osama [bin Laden] can reach his audience by employing such messages, … but publics don't necessarily have a desire for every particular, such as cutting off hands," says Stephen Weber, of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which helped conduct the poll, in an e-mail response to questions. The poll was carried out by WorldPublicOpinion.org.
"Generally, it seems fair to say that Osama understands his audiences rather well," he continues. "His calls for the application of sharia and a new caliphate touch some values in Muslim communities, particularly in the Arab countries we studied."
A useful analogy, he says, is to consider the fact that many Americans support Judeo-Christian values and the Ten Commandments, "but few would endorse stoning an adulteress."
The PIPA poll, which was conducted between December 2006 and February 2007, also found that large majorities reject Al Qaeda itself and its core tactic of attacking civilians. More than 75 percent of those surveyed in the four countries – Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Indonesia – say attacks on civilians is un-Islamic. Majorities in three countries say they oppose Al Qaeda's attacks on America; in Pakistan, 68 percent declined to answer this question, rendering it difficult to gauge attitudes there.
The poll also found that most respondents want US forces out of the Middle East and many approve of attacks on US troops there. Large majorities also say that undermining Islam was a key goal of US foreign policy.
Lack of interest in totalitarian vision
Most people inside and outside of the Arab world don't share the totalitarian vision that Al Qaeda espouses. And while many Muslims believe that sharia is something that's mandated by their religion, they interpret it widely.
For instance, the latest poll, released on April 24, found that 53 percent of Indonesians "strongly" or "somewhat" agree that the sharia should be followed in every Muslim country.
But a more in-depth poll of Indonesian opinions by the Asia Foundation in 2003 found that most Indonesians did not want Islamic law to replace the civil legal system, force women to cover their hair, or permit the mutilation of thieves and the killing of adulterers. Instead, they saw sharia as an admonition that Muslims abide by the five pillars of Islam: prayer, belief in God, pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms, and fasting during Ramadan.
Anecdotal evidence in Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt also point to a similar dynamic. While in Pakistan, large majorities said they supported sharia and the establishment of a caliphate, that's seen by analysts as stemming from two sources: disgust at corruption and lack of accountability in their own government, and an inclination to associate what is Islamic with what is good.
But their specific attitudes leave them far adrift of Al Qaeda.
Take Qazi Abdul Qadeer Khamosh, who actively promotes interfaith dialogue as the chairman of the Muslim Christian Federation International in Lahore, Pakistan. He supports sharia, but has a very different view than that espoused by bin Laden.
"Sharia cannot permit for anyone to kill anyone else. It does not even permit the killing of a tree," he says.
Pakistani poll respondents showed more of an interest in the application of sharia than democracy. But while only 20 percent said democracy was a very good system, and 79 percent said that they support sharia, that doesn't mean they are actively against democracy, religious scholars say.
"We need democracy, we like democracy. Democracy is a good way – we don't believe in the rule of kings. But democracy is only one small part of the sharia," says Mr. Khamosh. He adds that people in Pakistan want to fuse their values with a democratic system and not have a democratic system alone.
Shared core principles
Something similar appears to be happening in Morocco and Egypt, where leading Islamist politicians say they are at odds with Islamic dictatorship. In both countries, members of the major Islamist opposition groups say that they interpret Islam as demanding that citizens have democratic inputs into their governments.
"We took the core principles of democracy and we figured out they … are the same values" as those of Islam, says Mustapha Khalifi, a member of Morocco's Justice and Development party, the most powerful Islamist group in parliament.
"We don't find big problems between the core values of democracy and the core values of Islam," adds Mr. Khalifi, who just returned from a year working on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sultan-i-Rome, a professor of history and Islamic Studies in Swat, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, says that Muslims in Pakistan are not against Western values – indeed, they embrace many of them – but they are against Western policies, particularly as they are dispensed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If I want sharia law, it doesn't mean that I don't believe in the rest of the world," he comments. "It does not mean that I don't want to have relations with the US or the West. They want to have links, but they have reservations about the direction of policies."
David Montero in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jill Carroll in Cairo contributed to this report.