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Some of the most prominent articulators of the narrative of U.S. oppression of the Muslim people are al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups who espouse violence against America. Given the widespread anger at America in the Muslim world, it would not seem surprising if there were significant support for such groups. But feelings toward such groups are complex and replete with ambivalence. Attitudes toward radical Islamists are influenced by much more than the Islamists’ approach to the United States. Radical Islamism has been the counterpoint to liberalism in the Muslim-world discourse. It has rejected the democratic process as the basis for governance, universally based principles of human rights, and an international order based on international law and international institutions. Radical Islamists see these as departing from the Islamic basis for order and as derived from cooperation with infidels. The goal of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other radical Islamist groups to create a purely Islamist society and reject liberal values elicits a complex response. In principle there is support for the goal of increasing the role of sharia in the governing of society. Most Muslims, however, also endorse liberal ideas such as democracy and international law—which are rejected by radical Islamists—and they are generally wary of Islamic extremism. 114 Views of Al Qaeda and Other Radical Islamists 7 07-0559-8 CH 7:0305-1 3/3/11 2:14 PM Page 114 This tension overlaps with the polarized feelings Muslims have toward the United States. On the one hand Muslims are drawn to the liberal ideals that the United States professes, yet they fear American domination and perceive it as hostile to Islam. Al Qaeda is perceived as a threat, as most Muslims do not want al Qaeda to have the power to impose their fundamentalist system. But the United States is perceived as a greater threat, not only because its perceived goals of domination are anathema, but because it has such overwhelming military and economic power. Thus al Qaeda is perceived as something of a bulwark against the United States, even if it is also somewhat of a threat. As we have seen, majorities agree with nearly all of al Qaeda’s goals to change U.S. behavior in the Muslim world and to defend Islam from American domination. And there is significant support for attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, many of which are conducted by al Qaeda and related groups. On the other hand, there is unequivocal opposition to attacks on civilians , which al Qaeda conducts. This applies to attacks on American civilians as part of an effort to change American behavior as well as attacks on Muslim civilians in support of the goals of making society purely Islamic. Terrorism per se is roundly rejected. With these competing responses, the subject of al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups elicits substantial conflict and even cognitive dissonance . In the focus groups it was quite clear that people often found the subject discomfiting. As is demonstrated below, this ambivalence can result in a variety of defensive responses. One of the most simple is to deny that al Qaeda or other radical Islamist groups engage in attacks on civilians, even denying their involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Another more subtle response is to frame al Qaeda as a creation of the United States and thus characteristic of its progenitor rather than being truly Muslim. Some Muslims have more complex ways of rationalizing their support for al Qaeda by creating special provisos that justify violence against civilians . This is particularly important, as it is an indicator of the success of al Qaeda and others to redefine Islamic norms. Many Muslims, though, are able to differentiate their responses, agreeing with many of al Qaeda’s goals, but not its methods. However, while many people make this differentiation in response to separate questions Views of Al Qaeda and Other Radical Islamists 115 07-0559-8 CH 7:0305-1 3/3/11 2:14 PM Page 115 on goals and methods, when presented directly with the idea of supporting al Qaeda’s goals but opposing its methods as a single response option, majorities do not endorse this. Apparently, it is not easy to simultaneously think about two attitudes that are at odds with each other. This creates a certain instability in responses. The net effect of these dynamics is that in the Muslim world as a whole, there is not...


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