A comprehensive new survey of Muslims around the world shows large majorities renounce al-Qaida's use of terrorism to pursue political aims. But equally large majorities say they support al-Qaida's goal of pushing the United States to withdraw its military forces from all Muslim countries.
The survey by the nonprofit polling group, World Public Opinion, was conducted late last year using in-home interviews with several thousand residents of predominantly Muslim countries Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia. Smaller samplings were conducted in Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Azerbaijan and Nigeria.
In nearly all the nations polled, a significant majority of people - seven out of 10, on average - said they believe bombings, assassinations and violent attacks on civilians by al-Qaida and other Islamist groups are "not justified at all" as a means to achieve political or religious goals.
But Steven Kull, the director of World Public Opinion, says there is equally strong support for al-Qaida's goal of driving the U.S. military out of the Muslim world.
"Basically, we found that people have mixed feelings about al-Qaida, that many of the goals and long-term perspectives that al-Qaida has put forward resonate with people, including the goal al-Qaida has of getting the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from the region.
"At the same time, they feel quite uncomfortable with the use of terrorist methods - particularly any kind of attacks on civilians. They overwhelmingly reject that, even when they are offered arguments that they could be potentially justified."
However, the survey also found slightly smaller majorities in some Middle East countries support attacks on American military forces.
Poll gives U.S. policymakers issues to consider
Kull hopes the survey findings give the Obama administration food for thought on policy reforms that might help to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
"People are looking for signs that the U.S. respects people in the region and respects these countries, and what that means is that they are seen as independent and sovereign; that the relationship they have with the U.S. is not coercive; that the U.S. cannot tell them what to do."
The survey revealed widespread and deep opposition across the Muslim world to the continued presence of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf. Even among residents of America's NATO ally, Turkey, 77 percent were opposed to the continued presence.
Authors of the survey say such opposition likely stems from the strongly negative public views of U.S. goals in the Muslim world. Large majorities, ranging from 62 percent in Indonesia to 87 percent in Egypt, believe the United States seeks "to weaken and divide the Islamic world."
Stance on Palestinian-Israeli conflict could be key
The World Public Opinion poll also shows a majority of Muslims abroad believe the U.S. favors the expansion of Israeli territory. Respondants were less certain about whether the U.S. is committed to the so-called two-state solution - the establishment of a Palestinian state that peacefully coexists with Israel. Majorities in Egypt, Azerbaijan, Jordan and Turkey expressed doubts. But 59 percent of Palestinians said they do believe a Palestinian state is an authentic U.S. policy goal.
Daniel Brumberg, director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, says the Obama administration's continued pursuit of this two-state solution could generate more favorable views of the U.S. in the Muslim world.
"The new administration faces the challenge of trying to redefine the tone of its relations with the Muslim world, and that is one of the big challenges for the new administration," he says. "And I think, again, that this poll suggests that the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, remains a critical driver of many of these responses and that progress on this issue - real progress, not just process progress - would make some difference as well."
For now, this latest poll of the Muslim world indicates public perceptions of U.S. policies related to Islam and the Middle East remain mostly negative.