Poll: Arab opinion strongly negative on Islamic State

More than 8 in 10 participants in a rare poll conducted in seven Arab countries and among Syrian refugees say they have a negative view of IS, but only 6 in 10 support the objectives of the US-led war on IS.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A Syrian Kurdish refugee woman from the Kobane area sits outside a tent at a refugee camp in Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. Kobane, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters.

The Arab public has an overwhelmingly negative view of the Islamic State and a clear majority of Arabs support the goal of the US-led coalition to “degrade and destroy” the extremist Islamist group – even though the same public sees the US and Israel as the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-IS fight.

Those are among the key findings of a poll carried out in seven Arab countries and among Syrian refugees, which the survey’s organizers say is the first serious attempt to gauge Arab opinion concerning IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“We keep hearing there is fertile ground in Arab society for ISIL [but] there is no love lost for ISIL,” says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center of Washington, which conducted the poll, released today, with its parent organization, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.

While more than 8 in 10 participants in the poll said they have a negative view of IS, that overwhelming number dropped to a smaller majority – about 6 in 10 – when the question turned to support for the objectives of the US-led war on IS.

Explaining that drop, Mr. Jahshan says, is the widespread view among Arabs that the biggest winners in the anti-IS campaign will be the US and other countries that don’t win Arab popularity contests. Survey respondents see little personal advantage from the military campaign, but named the US, Israel, Iran, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (in that order) as its major beneficiaries.

Average Arabs – what analysts like to call the “Arab street” – continue to have a largely negative view of the US, with the survey reflecting that in the finding that 73 percent describe US policies in the region as “negative.”

Given that sentiment, it’s “surprising” that support for Arab participation in the coalition is higher – 61 percent – than overall support for the military campaign’s objectives, Jahshan says.

Could this mean that the Arab public is shifting toward a desire to see the region play a larger role in addressing its own problems? Jahshan thinks so.

“I think this refutes the theory in the US that Arabs just want the US to come in with the broom and dust pan and clean things up,” he says.

The poll, conducted Oct. 9 to 25 among 5,100 respondents reached by phone in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, as well as Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, shows widely varying views based on nationality.

Within the region-wide disdain for IS, respondents in Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt had the most negative opinion of the group controlling parts of Syria and about a third of Iraq. Standing apart was Palestine, with nearly a quarter of respondents having either a positive or somewhat positive view of the group.

Most supportive of the US-led military campaign against IS were respondents in Lebanon, among Syrian refugees, and in Iraq, while only 6 percent of respondents in Egypt – the lowest of the survey – said they “strongly approve” of the US-led airstrikes against IS and other jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.  

“Egypt historically is the hotbed of nationalist feelings of resentment of foreign occupation and military campaigns, so this sentiment we’re seeing has to do with history,” says Jahshan. Another factor, he suspects: “Relations between Egypt and the US are not the best right now,” he says.

Arab suspicions of what Jahshan calls a “hidden hand” of foreign involvement in the region surfaces in the survey in a question probing the origins of IS.

Asked whether the Islamic State is “a product of its own environment Arab/Muslim society” or was “created by foreign actors,” two-thirds or more of respondents in all places except Palestine attribute IS to “foreign actors." 

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