"There’s no question that the vast majority of Muslims — 1.6 billion Muslims in the world — are not violent. They’re not dangerous. They’re not a threat. But all the polling shows that between 7% and 10%, roughly, of the Islamic world does believe in suicide bombings, does support the Islamic State’s violence, does support al Qaeda. So this is a problem because in a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, that’s upwards of 160 million people who could be recruited and drawn into violence in the United States or around the world."
A number of you have asked for the data behind such an assertion. So let me explain the sources I've used over the years to develop a rough estimate of the number of Muslims that could reasonably be considered "Radicals." Let's start with data from 2007. Then we'll look at more recent data gathered between 2013 and 2015.
How Many Radicals Are There? (Gallup Data From 2007)
In 2008, authors John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed published a book titled, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Esposito was a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and founding director of the school’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Mogahed, herself was a devout Muslim, and was executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. (I cited their work in a non-fiction book I wrote in 2009, Inside The Revolution, about trends in the Islamic world.)
As Esposito and Mogahed stated in their introduction, “This book is the product of a mammoth, multiyear Gallup research study. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations. . . . In totality, we surveyed a sample representing more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, making this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done.”
What these two scholars discovered was fascinating, and sobering.
First, the good news. After asking scores of different questions to test attitudes and intentions, the Gallup poll revealed that upwards of 93 percent of Muslims worldwide in 2007 fit Esposito and Mogahed’s definition of a “moderate”—that is, peaceable, nonviolent, and traditionally religious but unlikely to pose a threat to Western security interests. In Egypt, for example, 94 percent of Muslims said they would like to have a constitution that would guarantee “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day.” In Iran, 93 percent said they wanted such personal and political freedom, as did 90 percent of Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country. In Turkey, 93 percent of Muslims believed women should have the right to vote, as do 89 percent of Muslims in Iran and 90 percent in Bangladesh. Nine in ten Muslims in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Lebanon believed that women should have the same legal rights as men. All very good news, indeed.
Now the bad news. While the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide were moderates in 2007, about 7 percent at the time would have been classified as Radicals. That is, they were supportive of anti-American and anti-Western terrorism, believed it is fully justified, and thus were sympathetic of and potentially helpful to violent Islamic extremists. This constituted the pool from which current Radical jihadists are recruiting future jihadists, and thus they pose a serious threat to Western security interests.
“According to the Gallup poll, 7 percent of [Muslim] respondents think that the 9/11 attacks were ‘completely’ justified and view the United States unfavorably,” Esposito and Mogahed concluded. “By focusing on the 7 percent, whom we’ll call ‘the politically radicalized,’ we are not saying that all in this group commit acts of violence. However, those with extremist views are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups. . . . They are also more likely to view other civilian attacks as justifiable.”
At first glance, 7 percent may seem like a relatively small number. But the implications of such results are staggering. Seven percent of 1.3 billion Muslims equals 91 million people. It may comfort people to know that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people. But how comforting is it to know that 91 million Muslims are “politically radicalized”? After all, were these 91 million people to form their own country—the Islamic Republic of Radicalstan, say—they would represent the twelfth largest country on the planet, having twice the population of Spain, nearly three times the population of Canada, almost ten times the population of Sweden, and more than twelve times the population of Israel.
Extensive polling also found that the Radicals were not necessarily more religious than moderate Muslims; nor did they necessarily attend mosque more frequently or read the Qur’an more often. They were simply differently religious. That is, they were fully devoted to a radicalized interpretation of the Qur’an, such as the theologies taught by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Sayyid Qutb, and Osama bin Laden.
Moreover, these Radicals did not tend to be poor, uneducated, unsophisticated people living in some hovel somewhere, though there are certainly Radicals who come from impoverished backgrounds. According to the Gallup poll data, the typical profile of a Radical in 2007 was young, male, smart, college-educated, financially well-off, technologically literate, highly mobile, deeply determined, and thus incredibly dangerous. According to the study:
49 percent of political Radicals are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.
62 percent are male, while 37 percent are female.
67 percent have secondary education or higher.
65 percent say they have average or above-average income.
As I noted in Inside The Revolution, not all scholars agreed in 2007 with the Gallup data that only 7 percent of Muslims were Radicals. Other research suggested the 7 percent figure may have actually been too low. According to a 2007 Pew Research Center poll, 28 percent of Egyptian Muslims said they believed suicide bombings against civilian targets were sometimes or often justified; 17 percent of Turkish Muslims agreed, along with 10 percent of Indonesian Muslims, 14 percent of Pakistani Muslims, 29 percent of Jordanian Muslims, and 46 percent of Nigerian Muslims. (See Andrew Kohut, “Muslims in America: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” Pew Research Center, May 22, 2007,http://pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf, accessed June 24, 2008.)
How Many Radicals Are There? (Current Polling Data From Pew Research)
Where are we now, nearly a decade after the sweeping Gallup study?
Second, looking closely at more recent data in recent years, I'm less comfortable saying only 7% of the Muslim world would be considered Radicals and now believe the figure is more likely between 7% and 10%. This still shows the vast majority of Muslims are not a threat to us. But, of course, 10% of 1.6 billion is a staggeringly large number of people from which the Radicals can recruit.
Indonesia (256 million people, 87% of whom are Muslims) -- 4%
Palestinians -- 6%
Turkey (80 million people, 99% Muslim) -- 8%
Pakistan (200 million people, 96% Muslim) -- 9%
Malaysia (30 million people, 61% Muslim) -- 11%
Nigeria (181 million, 50% are Muslims) -- 14%
While this Pew study did not look at every Muslim country, the data are helpful. They corroborate the premise that the vast majority of Muslims do not support ISIS. However, they also reveal that overall, roughly 7% to 10% of Muslims do, in fact, have a favorable view of the violent -- even genocidal -- theology, strategy and tactics of the Islamic State. In some specific countries, support for ISIS is even higher than the median.
The key finding was that after all the violence inflicted on the world since the mid-1990s -- and perhaps especially after all the Muslims that have been killed by al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Muslim support for the al Qaeda terror movement has been dropping.
"In our 2013 poll, a median of only 13% among Muslims across the 11-countries surveyed had a favorable view of al Qaeda," reported the Pew Research team.
"The highest support was in the Palestinian territories, where 35% of Muslims had a favorable view of al Qaeda. But elsewhere, less than a quarter of Muslims held a positive opinion of the extremist organization. Support was lowest in Lebanon, where only 1% of Muslims had a favorable impression of al Qaeda."
"Support for al Qaeda among Muslims plummeted most dramatically in Nigeria, by 40 percentage points, during the 2010 to 2013 time period, probably as a result of increased terrorist activity by al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram," notes Pew.
"In Jordan, [support for al Qaeda] fell by 21 points among Muslims during the same time period."
Note: while Pew finds that an average of 13% of Muslims worldwide supported al Qaeda in 2013, it seems likely that three years later that percentage has continued to drop and may be closer to 10% or 11% today.
In Indonesia -- again, the world's largest Islamic country -- Muslim support for suicide bombings against civilians dropped from 15% to 9%.
In Pakistan, support for suicide bombings dropped from 41% to just 3%.
In Lebanon, support for suicide bombings dropped from 74% to 29%.
In Jordan, support for suicide bombings dropped from 57% to 15%.
In Nigeria, support for suicide bombings dropped from 34% to 19%.
"For the most part, support for suicide bombing is not correlated with devoutness," observed the Pew researchers. "Generally, Muslims who say they pray five times per day are no more likely to support targeting civilians to protect Islam than those who pray less often. The only exception is the Palestinian territories, where 66% of Muslims who pray five times per day say suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified versus 49% of those who pray less than five times per day."
The bottom line is that is right and fair and accurate to say that the vast majority of Muslims are not violent, not dangerous and do not pose a threat to the national security of the United States or our primary allies.
But the data are also clear that roughly 7% to 10% of the world's Muslim population do hold Radical theological, eschatological, ideological and political beliefs that cause them to support the murderous vision, strategies and tactics of the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. This represents upwards of 160 million people. Not all will become suicide bombers or join violent jihadist movements. But this is the pool from which the followers of Radical Islam are recruiting.
It is, therefore, critically important that American and other world leaders closely study the theology and eschatology that is motivating this minority of the Muslim world to support the killing of civilians.
If we refuse to properly study and define our enemies, we will never be able to defeat them. And if our leaders continue to misunderstand the nature and threat of the evil we face, they will continue to be blindsided by future attacks.