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Survey Says Most Arab Youth Reject the Islamic State and Think It Will Fail

A news survey, based on 3,500 face-to-face interviews across the Arab World, charts young peoples' changing opinions on a broad array of issues, ranging from the Islamic State to the fallout from the Arab Spring.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Apr 12 2016, 5:15pm

[Foto Stringer/Reuters]

A new 16 country survey of Arab youth shows that support for the Islamic State is cratering — the majority of Arabs polled from ages 18-24 agree that the group is both a major threat, and will ultimately fail.

The poll was conducted by ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm which has kept tabs on Arab public opinion for the past eight years. Last year, around 60 of those surveyed said they were strongly opposed to the Islamic State — this year, that number's up to 80. A full 78 percent of respondents said they wouldn't support the Islamic State even if the group weren't so violent, and 76 percent predicted the group will fail in its goal to establish a caliphate. Half of those surveyed said the group's rise was the 'biggest obstacle' facing the region.

The data is based on 3,500 face-to-face interviews with participants between the age of 18-24 in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen — Syria was excluded from the survey because the civil war hampered the data collection.

The widespread rejection of the Islamic State by survey participants reflects a regional consensus about the group's deviant interperation of Islam.

"[Islamic State] ideology was widely rejected as a distortion of Islamic values and laws. Everyone from clerics to intellectuals to politicians refused its claims of legitimacy and condemned its atrocities," Hassan Hassan, an Islamic State expert at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in an analysis of the survey's findings. "Even like-minded jihadists opposed the organisation and its religious views — al-Qaeda, for example, disavowed it in February 2014."

The survey also asked participants to speak about the factors that might attract recruits to the Islamic State. Material factors, such as unemployment or bleak economic prospects topped the list, with only 18 percent reporting that religious ideology was a major draw.

The survey also found that in countries with the highest rates of joblessness, respondents were the most likely to cite economic factors as a rationale for other young Arabs seeking to join the Islamic State group — suggesting a strong link between dismal economic conditions and radicalization.

The poll also took the pulse of young Arabs on a range of other regional issues. On the Syrian Civil War, respondents were divided about the nature of the conflict. A full 39 percent viewed it as a proxy war between regional powers, 29 percent defined it as a revolution against the rule of Bashar Al-Assad, and 22 percent defined it as simply a civil war between Syrians themselves.

Related: German Spy Chief Says the Islamic State Wants to Attack — But He's Not Sure Where or How

Five years after the Arab Spring, the survey found that most Arab youth prioritize stability over democracy. Only 28 percent agreed that promoting democracy is more important that stability in the region. Back in 2012, a full 72 percent of those surveyed said the region was better off after the Arab Spring —this year, only 36 percent of those polled felt that way. Of the countries surveyed, only Egypt had a majority — 61 percent — of youth who believed that the region was still better off because of the Arab Spring. Still, a full 67 percent of those surveyed wanted leaders to do more to improve the personal freedom and human rights of citizens.

The survey also captured mixed views of the United States. More than 60 percent overall viewed the United States as an "ally." But views differed widely country by country. More than 90 percent of Iraqis, for example, saw the US as an enemey, and more than half of Lebanese youth survey agreed.