Surprisingly, 6 million Christians in Nigeria — about 7% of the Christian population — have favorable views of ISIS, according to a much cited Pew Center study. In addition, only 71% of Christians in the same country and 66% of Buddhists in Malaysia had negative views of the group.
So when we note, according to the same Pew Center report, that about 7% of Muslims across eleven surveyed countries say they have “favorable” views of Islamic state,” we need to think carefully before drawing conclusions. Many Christians and Muslims with a “favorable view” of “Islamic state” are in fact partially or completely ignorant about what the group is really doing. To at least some villagers in Nigeria or Anatolia or Pakistan or Malyasia of any religion, “Islamic state” just sounds like a good thing.
Indicatively, in Egypt a few years ago millions voted for the “Muslim brotherhood” and then turned on them in revolt when they realized that the group, once in power, had an exclusivist understanding of Islam — that is, the audacity to start pronouncing who was a good or bad Muslim. (“We voted for them because ‘Muslim’ meant they must be honest. We didn’t know what they stood for,” both Egyptian Muslims and Christians explained to me when I was last there.)
I take the 7% figures with a massive grain of salt. Neither 6 million Christians in Nigeria nor 100 million Muslims globally are about to start beheading people.
There is no doubt, however, that ISIS and their ilk have recruited and are continuing to recruit a base of support. The questions are: what are the real numbers, who is being attracted, and why? Did the 5000 impoverished youth that joined ISIS from a single area in Chechnya (a Muslim part of Russia) do so because “Islam” has an intrinsically “radical” dimension that aims for a police state ruled through terror, slavery, rape, and murder? Or maybe because those youth, growing up in an area devastated by the Russians, experience extreme hopelessness and anger in the face of brutal repression and poverty? (It’s no surprise that core ISIS fighters come from Chechnya and Iraq.) Perhaps the questions are more complex than we are being led to believe.
Rather than judge the content of a religion — especially the religion of our fellow citizens — based on polls of people overseas with limited access to information or what is happening in Iraq and Syria, shouldn’t we try more humbly to get to know actual human beings that live in our communities? We might find that most Muslim Americans are just like other Americans. Most are nice, and some can be jerks.
I recall reading some time ago that 90% of Americans thought that Toronto was in Italy. 10% of us couldn’t identify the capital of our own country. If most of us, living as we do in one of the most privileged countries on earth, don’t know that Toronto is across the Canadian border, shouldn’t we be realistic about the foreign affairs knowledge of illiterate villagers in places like Kaduna, Nassawara, Taraba, or Jigawa — and read these polling results a little more critically? And perhaps in turn think more humbly and critically about our own understanding of the entire situation?
Hassanaly Ladha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut.