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Rejection of American culture rather than US foreign policies shapes Muslim support for attacks on US civilians

Rejection of American culture rather than US foreign policies shapes Muslim support for attacks on US civilians

Research finds support for attacks on civilians in the United States among people in some Muslim countries is linked to negative views of American culture rather than perceptions of its foreign policy

“As the world discusses the fallout from the US Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture conducted by the CIA, this research shows that the widely-held belief that negative views of US foreign policy increase support for terrorist attacks on the US is wrong,” said Dr Lars Berger, Associate Professor of International Security at the University of Leeds.

In his analysis of survey data from Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan, Dr Berger, of the School of Politics and International Studies, found that a dislike of American culture – defined as “American culture, people and freedom of expression” – was the only consistently significant factor linked to approval for attacks on civilians in the US.

“Negative perceptions of controversial US policies toward Israel, Middle Eastern oil, or the perceived attempt to weaken and divide the Muslim world are not related to support for attacks on civilians in the United States, but only to support for attacks on US military targets,” said Dr Berger.

“This research makes clear that radical Islamists face more difficulties in turning perceived political indignation at the hands of the United States into support for terrorist attacks on US civilians than many journalistic and academic accounts assume.”

The survey, of 3,421 people, found that 9% of Egyptians and Pakistanis approved of attacks on civilians in America, and 6% of Indonesians. 

Dr Berger looked at the results and found:

• The probability of a male Muslim respondent with average income and educational achievement who had very positive views of US culture supporting attacks on civilians in the US was 1.4% in Egypt, 1.5% in Indonesia, and 7.4% in Pakistan; 

• This probability jumped to 9.3% in Egypt, 16.2% in Indonesia, and 23.4% in Pakistan if respondents said they looked “very unfavourably” on US culture;

• There was no significant link between a dislike of American foreign policy and approval for attacks on civilians in the US;

• Demographics factors such as gender, age, earning less or having an incomplete education made no significant difference;

• It also became clear that it is not religion per se, but rather religious interpretations embedded in specific political and religious contexts which shape attitudes toward political violence. For Pakistani Muslims, being religiously observant was linked to greater support for civilian attacks: the probability of people endorsing attacks on civilians in the United States increased from 4.3% if they did not pray five times a day to 13.5% if they did. But among Egyptian Muslims, the relationship was opposite: the probability of endorsing attacks fell from 10.8% among those who did not pray five times a day to 3.7% among those who did. Religious observance was not a significant predictor of support for attacks on US civilians among Indonesians. 

“There are a number of conclusions we can draw from these data with regard to the possible impact of the publication of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s report on torture,” explained Dr Berger. 

“We should not expect an increase in support for the type of violence against US civilians witnessed on 9/11 or with the Boston marathon bombings among the majority of Muslim people who have neutral or positive views of US culture. Those with negative views of US culture, however, will see the torture reports as further evidence for what they regard as the fundamentally evil nature of American society which, in their view, justifies the indiscriminate targeting of US civilians in terrorist attacks.”     

The findings were published in the Journal of Peace Research.

Further information

Dr Lars Berger is available for interview and is on @LarsGBerger. Contact the University of Leeds press on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk  


The article, ‘Foreign politics or culture: What shapes Muslim public opinion on political violence against the United States?’ in the Journal of Peace Research, is available at http://jpr.sagepub.com/content/51/6/782.abstract 

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