In Pakistan, only 9 percent of Muslims now believe that suicide bombings against civilian targets can sometimes, or often, be justified -- down from 41 percent who said so in 2004. In Lebanon, support has dropped by 40 percent. In Bangladesh and Indonesia, it has dropped by at least 50 percent.
Senior Pew researcher Richard Wike says an exception to this trend was found in the Palestinian territories, where the results were consistent across all age groups.
"Seventy percent of Palestinians say that suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified and that's by far the highest percentage of any of the Muslim publics that we studied," Wike says.
This drop in support for a previously accepted form of violence in the name of Islam is the major finding in the new Pew Global Attitudes report, which looked at the views of Muslims in 47 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
The report's authors consider it the leading indicator of a larger trend in the Muslim world: a growing rejection of terrorist tactics.
Whether most Muslims think suicide missions against military or government targets is justified is another question, and one that Wike says the Pew surveyors did not ask.
Wike sees a possible connection between the rejection of terrorism against civilians and the massive bloodshed in Iraq. He draws a parallel between Muslim attitudes in Jordan and the suicide bombings of three Western hotels in the capital, Amman, in November 2005 that killed 60 people and injured 115.
"You know, we've seen a really big drop-off over the last five years in support for terrorism in Jordan, and a lot of that change took place between [2005 and 2006] and in that intervening period, you had the Amman bombings, and there was a reaction to that, and support for terrorism declined," Wike says. "I think we've seen similar kinds of things happening in other countries, as well, and it's possible that the overall decline could be a reaction to what people are seeing in Iraq."
Al-Qaeda Loses Support
That might also explain the survey's finding that many Muslims no longer support Osama bin Laden.
In the past four years, confidence in the Al-Qaeda leader has dropped 36 percent among Muslims in Jordan, 19 percent among Muslims in Lebanon, and 18 percent among Muslims in Indonesia.
Wike says the survey didn't ask the question directly, but the numbers reveal a pattern. "Well, we don't follow up and ask people why support for bin Laden has dropped, but you see these same overall patterns in terms of support for bin Laden that you see for suicide bombing," he notes. "The overall trend is a downward one. It's tended to drop in some of the same places where support for suicide bombing is dropping so they're very much related to one another."
The report also found that in the Muslim world, there is growing concern that tensions between Sunni and Shi'a are not limited to Iraq, but have become a problem in other areas.
"Pretty high numbers in a number of countries told us that it is a growing problem, beyond just Iraq. In particular, you see a large majority saying this in Lebanon and Kuwait, which of course are countries that have a pretty sizeable Shi'a community," Wike says. "But you also see a lot people saying it's a growing problem in other countries, as well: Jordan and Egypt, a majority also in the Palestinian territories say that this is a spreading conflict."
Among Muslims in Africa, however, opinion is divided as to whether tensions between the two groups are becoming a larger problem. In Asia, only a quarter of Muslims say Shi'a and Sunni relations are worsening.
On the question of how the Muslim world views Iran, the findings were mixed. Opinions of the Islamic republic are better outside the Middle East than within the region.
In Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Kuwait, the majority of Muslims surveyed view Iran unfavorably. Fifty-five percent of Palestinian Muslims have a favorable opinion, as do majorities in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.
U.S. Seen As Threat
Wike says the finding that may surprise most people is the number of predominantly Muslim U.S. allies who see America as a potential military threat. The report found that "large majorities of Muslims in Asia and the Middle East worry that the U.S. could become a military threat to their countries."
That fear was almost unanimous in Morocco and Bangladesh, and very high in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey.
"If you look at Turkey for example -- which is, of course, a longtime NATO ally of the United States -- you have 77 percent in Turkey telling us that they are either very or somewhat worried that the U.S. could be a military threat to their country at some point in the near future," Wike says.
"Again, look at Kuwait: you've more than six in 10 people telling us they're either very or somewhat worried that the U.S. could be a military threat. Of course, Kuwait is a relatively pro-American Muslim country," Wike continues. "So those numbers are very high and, I think, often surprising to people who are surprised to think a NATO all of ours -- Turkey -- could be this concerned about the potential for a U.S. military threat."
Hamas, Hizballah Support Solid
Finally, despite finding that Muslims are increasingly rejecting violence against civilian targets, the survey found support in the Muslim world for the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hizballah groups, which are considered terrorist organizations by most governments.
Wike said that where support for those groups was found, there was corresponding support for suicide missions. Not surprisingly, the popularity of Hizballah and Hamas was highest in the Palestinian territories, at 76 percent. More than half of the Muslims surveyed in Egypt and Jordan also say they view the groups favorably.
"You know, we do find that there is a fair amount of support for Hizballah and for Hamas in many countries," Wike says. "Now, we haven't actually looked at it to see how correlated it is with support for suicide bombing but I think in a lot of the places you see support for those groups you're probably likely to see stronger support for suicide bombing, as well."
Previous Pew Global Attitude surveys have looked at how Westerners and Muslims view each other, Muslims in Europe, and the United States' image abroad.
Who Speaks For Islam?
Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)
CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
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