The limited allure of extremism
January 27th, 2014
10:52 AM ET

The limited allure of extremism

By Richard Wike, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Richard Wike is Director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center. You can follow him @RichardWike. The views expressed are his own.

The recent news from Fallujah and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa must be pretty encouraging for al Qaeda sympathizers. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliated group, has a significant presence in the city where the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War took place nearly a decade ago. ISIS and other al Qaeda inspired groups have also met with success on the battlefield in Syria, while extremist groups who embrace both violence and a severe, distorted version of Islam are on the offensive not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere.  

Yet if recent history is any guide, extremists’ current momentum will likely be followed by a strong backlash. After all, when it comes to hearts and minds, al Qaeda and its ilk have repeatedly demonstrated that they have very limited appeal. Indeed, generally speaking, the more people are exposed to extremist violence and al-Qaeda-style rule, the less they like it.

Take Pakistan, a country that generates lots of headlines in the U.S., few of them positive. But a major trend over the last decade has been underreported: declining Pakistani support for extremism. Pakistanis have seen violent extremism up close, and they have rejected it. For example, in 2004, 41 percent of Pakistani Muslims said suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets could often or sometimes be justified. However, by 2013 a Pew Research Center poll found that number had fallen to 3 percent.

In one study of attitudes toward militant groups in Pakistan published last year, the authors found that opposition to militant groups was especially high among the poor who live in urban districts that have been directly impacted by violence. Writing in the American Journal of Political Science, the authors concluded that the poor dislike militant groups “because they bear the brunt of the consequences of militancy.”

Another dramatic turnaround in opinion about extremists has been seen in Jordan. A spring 2005 Pew Research poll found a majority of Jordanian Muslims – 57 percent – believed that suicide bombings could often or sometimes be justifiable. In November 2005, al Qaeda affiliates, led at the time by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, launched deadly suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman, the Jordanian capital, killing dozens and wounding more than 100. A few months later, a spring 2006 Pew Research Center survey found that support for suicide bombing among Muslims in Jordan had tumbled to 29 percent. And it has continued to decline in the years since, now standing at just 12 percent as of March 2013.

Nigeria has also experienced an extremism backlash. In spring 2010, when suicide bombing and other extremist violence was still perhaps something of an abstraction for many Nigerian Muslims, support for al Qaeda was surprisingly strong: 49 percent said they had a positive view of the group. But in the years since, Boko Haram, an extremist organization that claims links to al Qaeda, has orchestrated numerous suicide attacks and tried to impose its version of sharia law in the country’s Muslim dominated north. This direct experience with violent extremism has led to a shift in Nigerian Muslim attitudes and today just 9 percent express a favorable opinion of al Qaeda. Support for suicide bombing has for its part dropped from a third among Muslims in 2010 to 8 percent in 2013. And Boko Haram is held in especially low regard – only 2 percent of the nation’s Muslims give the extremist movement a positive rating.

As George Mason University’s Audrey Kurth Cronin has noted, the backlash against extremists hasn’t been confined to Muslim nations. The Real Irish Republican Army, an offshoot of the Provisional IRA that rejected the Northern Ireland peace process, lost public favor after the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people, including nine children. Cronin says “the group never recovered in the eyes of the community.” She also suggests that public revulsion toward violence undercut support for the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain, as well as Sikh separatist groups in India.

Writing in The New Republic in 2008, Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank perhaps summed up best why groups like al Qaeda struggle to secure widespread appeal:

“[E]ncoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups like Al Qaeda are the seeds of their own long-term destruction: Their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don’t offer a positive vision of the future (but rather the prospect of Taliban-style regimes from Morocco to Indonesia); they keep expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn’t precisely share their world view; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics.”

Of course, in the years since Bergen and Cruickshank wrote these words, al Qaeda has persisted, carrying out plots and even at times controlling territory in places like Mali, Iraq, and Syria. But it has largely failed on the battlefield of ideas, and the Bergen-Cruickshank thesis is still correct: al Qaeda’s ideology also sets the stage for its own demise.

Just look at Syria, and what on the surface looks like a success story for extremists. New York Times correspondents Hwaida Saad and Rick Gladstone wrote that Syrians increasingly resent the group’s hijacking of the anti-al-Assad struggle. Sunni rebel groups are turning against ISIS, and protests against the al Qaeda affiliate are spreading, as civilians grow “fed up with what they see as its dictatorial behavior, which has included arresting, punishing and sometimes executing anti-Assad activists who disagree with the goal of creating a strict monolithic Sunni Islamic state.”

Of course, it’s impossible to predict what path the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq will follow. External forces – particularly the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran – will have a significant impact on the outcome in both countries. But based on their track record, and the track record of other extremists, al Qaeda inspired groups will have a difficult time selling the Syrian and Iraqi public on their brand of radical, and violent, Islam.

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Topics: Terrorism

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. JAL

    I think President Obama's State of the Union speech will be a powerful one. I'll be wearing my Bulls cap, bc it is game on.

    January 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • Jack 2

      Obama's last speeches amounted to nothing as his politics usually do.

      January 27, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        It's true that Islamic extremism has limited appeal. People of all religious stripes do embrace – to a certain extent – freedom.
        The sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria had been hijacked by extremists. They know how to take advantage of fear and havoc to establish themselves. The agenda of the ISIS, is to redraw the Middle East map, having a state of their own. The Taliban rule before 9/11 shows that a terror regime has no longevity.

        January 28, 2014 at 7:55 am |
    • TomGI

      I'd be happy if he just came out and said, "I'm not going to let America go to war with Iran" then walked off. I'd be happy with that.

      January 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  2. Benedict

    That's the best recipe: kill, kill some more and keep on KILLING!!!. That makes everything right with the world,i tell you!!!.

    January 27, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  3. Quinton

    If I were a Pakistani, I'd feel a kind of allure toward the so-called "extremists" since it seems that they alone are fighting U.S. neocolonialism in both the Middle East and Central Asia. Maybe if the U.S. and the British would only leave this part of the world alone, "extremism" may not be quite so attractive.

    January 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Well said, Quinton. We Americans do need to stay out of this region where we have no legitimate business. This is why ours is the most hated nation in the world today.

      January 27, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • ED4

      The common thread expressed when people are asked why they support the Taliban and other jihadist extremists is that they bring justice with them. I can imagine that if I lived in an area where the police and government officials were just as likely to shake me down for money as bandits I might support any group that could bring law and order to the community. The fact that many people are willing to give up all their freedoms just to get some sense of justice in their lives shows just how important justice is to a community.

      February 3, 2014 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • john r.

      The insistent presence of the US and British and other foreigners in the middle east, it's the oil and foreign market. Nothing more.

      February 7, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  4. Dave

    One should only go to the extreme if they are rocking a microphone like a vandal while lighting up a stage and waxing a chump like a candle.

    January 27, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Reply
    • Awesome

      Dave, that is the best reply I've ever heard. +15 internets for you.

      January 27, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Reply
      • Dave

        Word to your mother.

        January 27, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
      • bryanfred

        This is David Bowie's attorney. I would like a word (and not to your mutha).

        January 27, 2014 at 6:45 pm |
  5. Jonah

    If extremism is losing its appeal in other countries, it is growing in America. Internet research this weekend led me to many, many sites about "white nationalism" and the growing conviction (hope?) of an America in anarchy, broken into tiny city-states, in which gangs and a (white) male-dominated hierarchy (if the form of a dictator) rule, replacing our modern multicultural, feminist-dominated national conversations

    January 27, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Reply
    • robbiej

      funny how pakistan is mentioned,and pakistan supports terror against India and other neighbors of theirs.Pakistan is sick of extremism?When polls are taken one must take into account where the poll is taken,and the fact that they do not poll everyone in the country.They poll a small number and assume the rest feel the same way.

      January 27, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  6. Patrick

    Extremist are just too extreme these days. They should just eat pepperoni pizza and me nice. Just like me and Dazzle and Chrissy. We are awesome. And nice.

    January 27, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  7. Arnold

    Muslim terrorists!

    January 27, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  8. jeff l

    In 5000 years of recorded history have humans ever tired from kiliing one another for one reason or another.

    January 27, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  9. conoclast

    Remember when the House T-baggers first came to town, how they proudly delcared their steadfast opposition to the very concept of compromise? As with anything deemed "radical", they've left themselves but one direction in which to move: toward the center. It can't happen too soon!

    January 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  10. burt buttlicker

    what about extremism in the United States-the radical right destroying the middle class and conventions like pensions and retirement with it-as well as there legion of EXTREMEy stupid followers?

    January 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • bryanfred

      Keep licking that butt, Burt. Pensions are not in trouble because of the GOP. They're in trouble because 1+1 does not equal 5. Otherwise Illinois and Chicago would be doing great (hint: they're not).

      January 27, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  11. m

    Yeah, it sure looks like extremism is limited, eh?
    Of course, you have to completely ignore hundreds if not thousands of deaths each month due to whacko extremists, especially Muslims.
    But other than that, yeah, it's great.

    January 27, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
    • roccox

      It is man's inherent nature to make war.

      January 27, 2014 at 11:28 pm | Reply
    • Tom Clark

      And extremist capiatists, invading on occuping countries for resources. Muslims are no more 'extreme' than Christians. People use 'religion' for their own gain.

      February 2, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  12. banasy©

    Let us pray for peace on Earth. Let good prevail over evil.

    January 27, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  13. kelly

    don't tell that to american conservatives; they seem to be doing everything possible to go back in time.

    January 27, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  14. NMStan

    Hmmmmmm. Al-Qaeda sounds like our dispeptic tea party extremists in many ways.

    January 27, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      You realize Obama is has become the drone President, right? Keep blaming Ma and Pa Tea Party, but it's tired and wrong.

      And you just likened a political movement to a terrorist organization. Am I cool to characterize you as a rapist?

      January 28, 2014 at 1:13 am | Reply
  15. Ferhat Balkan

    That guy in the middle is likely on the lookout for drones. A double edged sword that has a backlash of building sympathy for the enemy wherever it strikes. A never ending cycle of destruction and hate.

    January 27, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Lol @ NMStan, dont they though? That was a good comparison!

    January 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      You laughed out loud at that? You need to get out more Chrissy.

      January 28, 2014 at 1:15 am | Reply
  17. chrissy

    And @ Patrick, aka jeff roem, we have NEVER met nor are we going to.... unless i have a taser, so stop spreading that bs!

    January 27, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  18. Cent

    Extremism consists of ideology. They don't quit or compromise. It's either victory or defeat.

    January 27, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  19. Akbar Anwar Buzbar Nutbar

    Worshipers of the rotting worm feast unite. You can only blow up the funeral processions of your rival brand of burkas for so long before the rival brand starts hating you enough to blow up your funeral processions. Soon, funerals are not safe to attend and you just let the corpse rot in place. People make that trek to mecca to see the rotting corpse in a box in that coastal Saudi town and they see someone with the wrong threat count burka and they kill them. They proclaim, "In the name of my lord who I believe and follow I kill thee for blasphemy of the burka law." The a predator blows them all up, worm feast be praised.

    January 27, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  20. Jeannie

    Opinion without proper education is seen as foolish to me.Undermining the respect and ethis to appreachiate a cultural indifferance.The ones with the loudest opinions are not there suffering or close to death ...they watch media precisly place words such as violance and extreme
    with the next word being that of a particular religion. There is much the average person would not far as ties with Al-QUIDA many countries have there hand in the mix including yours truley America.Innoscents is claimed most strongly by the guilty . In times like these at least someone some where is doing something other then playing x box and wrking a low wage jobs sitting on government cash. J.Roberts 2014 ps. Obama is doing what he can- lay off my president ... he is so real to us. God Bless America

    January 28, 2014 at 2:49 am | Reply
  21. lepard

    Extremism is alive and well in the USA. With open war on working class whites many go to www DOT stormfront DOT org. The announcement by DHS secretary Johnson is typical. He declared illegal immigrants deserve citizenship. This when the glut of unskilled labor is destroying working class Americans.

    January 28, 2014 at 3:19 am | Reply
    • Tom Clark

      Corporate greed , helped by the GOP, is destroying the US working class, not unskilled migrants.

      February 2, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  22. rosethornne

    Funny how there's no mention of the droolslobbering jeebus freaks destroying our own country.

    January 28, 2014 at 3:27 am | Reply
  23. jwdds1

    Let's see tea party extreme ideas. Only spend what you can afford to pay for. It's not a right if you have to force free labor from others to obtain it. Against Taxing earned money from one group to give to another group that does nothing to earn it. Protecting the rights guaranteed in the bill of rights. Yeah those are real extreme ideas.

    January 28, 2014 at 4:27 am | Reply
  24. mary

    I disagree

    January 28, 2014 at 6:42 am | Reply
  25. Rick McDaniel

    That is simply silly. The Islamic threat is moving across the planet, and there is no end in sight.

    January 28, 2014 at 11:26 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Really, Rick? Somehow I fear U.S. global expansionism far worse than any Muslim. The true axis of evil today consists of the U.S., Great Britain and France!

      January 28, 2014 at 11:44 am | Reply
  26. chrissy

    Extreme Tea Party ideas are shut down the government (if they could overthrow them they would). Hold the government hostage until they get what they want. Those are just a cpl.

    January 28, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      I agree, chrissy. The Tea Party Movement is no more, no less than our own equivalent to the German Nazi Party of the 1930's. It's as simple as this, chrissy. Ignorance produces fear and fear produces hate and hate produces right-wing fanaticism and hence the right-wing Tea Party. The politicians in Washington couldn't be more pleased!

      January 28, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  27. wemustresist

    Lets get real. The extremists use terror because they don't have 'allure'. Never had and never will. Who needs allure if you can use terror? Why do they need to win on the battlefield of ideas? If they have us by the delicate parts then our hearts and minds will surely follow, to paraphrase LBJ. Look at the big picture. Since the Al queda attacks in 2001 have we made our democracy and our civilization more strong or less strong? Less strong. We resist Sharia with less and less strength. Thats the war objective of the enemy. They don't need allure for that goal any more than they need French perfume. Again look at a big map. Since Jihad was first started all those years ago has Sharia spread a lot or a little? A lot. And what did allure have to do with that spread? Nothing. What did terror have to do with that spread? Everything! Not one government converted to Sharia unless it first got a strong dose of terror. What does the enemy want? Sharia! How do they get it? By terror!

    January 29, 2014 at 5:44 am | Reply
  28. Rick McDaniel

    If that were true, America wouldn't have to be stopping terror from within its own borders, every day.

    February 2, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  29. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    This article is almost a re-hash of Mr. Fareed Zakaria's DECEITFUL article "The Jihad against the Jihadis" – "How moderate Muslim leaders waged war on extremists—and WON!!!" first published in Newsweek Feb 22, 2010 which can be read on .

    In the article laced with half truths, lies, deceit Mr. Zakaria portrays Americans as even MORE TOLERANT THAN the MUSLIM WORLD when it comes to violence against civilians, by combining American military action with suicide bombings.

    Here's what Mr. Zakaria says there:

    "The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, where only 12 percent of Jordanians view suicide attacks as “often or sometimes justified” (down from 57 percent in 2005). In Indonesia, 85 percent of respondents agree that terrorist attacks are “rarely/never justified” (in 2002, by contrast, only 70 percent opposed such attacks). In Pakistan, that figure is 90 percent, up from 43 percent in 2002. Gerges points out that, by comparison, only 46 percent of Americans say that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24 percent believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

    February 3, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  30. Yuck

    How about leaving the good and the innocents alone and go after the real bad guys who started all this war on the middle east?charge them with war crimes and misleading a whole nation(bushies)

    February 3, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Reply

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