By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria has focused new attention on the role and influence of Islamic extremist groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and jihadists from Chechnya, Pakistan and other countries – opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his address to the nation on September 10, President Barack Obama asserted that “al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
Syria’s neighbors share some of those concerns. Indeed, a new Pew Research Center survey shows extremism is also a matter of great concern to Muslims in the countries surrounding Syria, with many also worried that the turmoil will spread across their own border.
More than nine-in-ten Lebanese think that Syria’s violence might spill over into their nation, including two-thirds who are very concerned, according to the survey. Such fears are shared by all the principal religious groups in Lebanon: Christians (99 percent), Shia (95 percent) and Sunni (91 percent). Eight-in-ten Jordanians express concern about the Syrian fighting spreading into Jordan. And in Turkey, 62 percent say they are apprehensive that the violence could infect their society. Middle Eastern nations slightly further afield are only marginally less concerned. In Tunisia, 89 percent worry that the turmoil in Syria could lead to new unrest in other countries. In Egypt, three quarters of those surveyed express anxiety that the violence might trigger conflicts elsewhere, as do almost an identical number in the Palestinian territories.
At the same time, strong majorities of Muslims in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and the Palestinian territories are concerned about Islamic extremism, as are a little more than half of Jordanians. In Lebanon, Syria’s immediate neighbor, large majorities of Shia and Sunni Muslims share concerns about Islamic extremism (74 percent and 72 percent, respectively). These worries are even more pronounced among Lebanon’s Christians (92 percent). Turkey is the only country surveyed in the region where at least half of Muslims say they are not worried about Islamic extremism.
More specifically, there is huge trepidation about extremist groups, particularly al Qaeda. Strong majorities of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt have an unfavorable view of the terrorist organization. In most countries surveyed, perceptions of al Qaeda are largely unchanged since last year. The only notable exception is in the Palestinian territories, where, since 2011, positive ratings of al Qaeda have ticked up seven percentage points among Muslims, from 28 percent to 35 percent.
Views of Hezbollah, the extremist organization whose forces have been fighting alongside al-Assad’s troops in Syria, divide along sectarian lines in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is headquartered. Among the country’s Sunni Muslims more than nine-in-ten have a negative opinion of the organization, as do six-in-ten Lebanese Christians. By contrast, 89 percent of Lebanese Shia hold a favorable view of the group, with only one-in-ten judging Hezbollah unfavorably.
In other parts of the Middle East, nearly three quarters of those in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan express distaste for Hezbollah. And, since 2007, Hezbollah has seen declining support among Muslims in Egypt (down 38 points) and Jordan (down 28 points).
But views are mixed in the Palestinian territories, where almost half of Muslims overall have a negative view of Hezbollah, compared with 43 percent who have a positive opinion. Hezbollah is more popular among Muslims in the West Bank than the Gaza Strip. However, Muslims in the Palestinian territories have grown less supportive of the militant Shia organization, with positive views dropping 33 percentage points since 2007.
Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., is also generally seen negatively. Two-thirds of Lebanese Sunni have an unfavorable opinion of Hamas, as do about eight-in-ten Lebanese Christians. In much of the rest of the Middle East, views of the group are similarly critical. Half or more of Muslims in Turkey (73 percent), Jordan (55 percent), and Lebanon (52 percent) are hostile to the militant organization, with about half in Egypt sharing that view. And, since 2007, support for Hamas has declined among Muslims. In Jordan, support is down 20 points and in Turkey down 10. Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, support for the organization has fallen among Palestinian Muslims by 15 percentage points. The loss of support has been especially dramatic among Muslims in the West Bank: in 2007, 70 percent had a positive opinion of Hamas, compared with 51 percent today. In the Gaza Strip, opinion has not significantly changed since 2007. However, the Palestinian extremist organization is still viewed positively by a majority of Lebanese Shia Muslims (62 percent).
In an interview with NBC September 5, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued that extremist rebels could hijack the opposition if the United States fails to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. This fear of extremism and its possible spread to other nations in the region is widely shared by Muslims among Syria’s neighbors.
But Pew Research Center polling that predates allegations of al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons is also fairly conclusive – despite their concern about extremist groups and the fighting in Syria, Muslims in the Middle East generally do not want the West, or even other Arab nations, to intervene in that war-torn country.