Counting Islamists

Oct. 7, 2008
The recent distribution of some 28 million copies in the United States of the 
2005 documentary Obsession has stirred heated debate about its contents. One 
lightening rod for criticism concerns my on-screen statement that "10 to 15 
percent of Muslims worldwide support militant Islam." 

The Muslim Public Affairs Council declared this estimate both "utterly 
unsubstantiated" and "completely without evidence." Masoud Kheirabadi, a 
professor at Portland State University and author of children's books about 
Islam, informed the Oregonian newspaper that there's no basis for my estimate. 
Daniel Ruth, writing in the Tampa Tribune, asked dubiously how I arrived at 
this number. "Did he take a poll? That would be enlightening! What does 
'support' for radical Islam mean? Pipes provides no answers." 

Actually, Pipes did provide answers. He collected and published many numbers at 
"How Many Islamists?" a weblog entry initiated in May 2005. 

First, though, an explanation of what I meant by Muslims who "support militant 
Islam": these are Islamists, individuals who seek a totalistic, worldwide 
application of Islamic law, the Shari'a. In particular, they seek to build an 
Islamic state in Turkey, replace Israel with an Islamic state and the US 
constitution with the Koran. 

AS WITH any attitudinal estimate, however, several factors impede approximating 
the percentage of Islamists. 

How much fervor: Gallup polled over 50,000 Muslims across 10 countries and 
found that, if one defines radicals as those who deemed the 9/11 attacks 
"completely justified," their number constitutes about 7 percent of the total 
population. But if one includes Muslims who considered the attacks "largely 
justified," their ranks jump to 13.5 percent. Adding those who deemed the 
attacks "somewhat justified" boosts the number of radicals to 36.6 percent. 
Which figure should one adopt? 

Gauge voter intentions: Elections measure Islamist sentiment untidily, for 
Islamist parties erratically win support from non-Islamists. Thus, Turkey's 
Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 47 percent in 2007 elections, 34 
percent of the vote in 2002 elections, and its precursor, the Virtue Party, won 
just 15 percent in 1999. The Islamic Movement's northern faction won 75 percent 
of the vote in the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm 2003 elections while Hamas, 
the Palestinian terrorist organization, won 44 percent of the vote in the 
Palestinian Authority in 2006. Which number does one select? 

What to measure: Many polls measure attitudes other than application of Islamic 
law. Gallup looks at support for 9/11. The Pew Global Attitudes Project 
assesses support for suicide bombing. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security specialist, 
focuses on pro-Osama bin Laden views. Germany's domestic security agency, the 
Verfassungsschutz, counts membership in Islamist organizations. Margaret Nydell 
of Georgetown University calculates "Islamists who resort to violence." 

Inexplicably varying results: A University of Jordan survey revealed that large 
majorities of Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians wish the Shari'a to be 
the only source of Islamic law - but only one-third of Syrians. Indonesian 
survey and election results led R. William Liddle and Saiful Mujani in 2003 to 
conclude that the number of Islamists "is no more than 15 percent of the total 
Indonesian Muslim population." In contrast, a 2008 survey of 8,000 Indonesian 
Muslims by Roy Morgan Research found 40 percent of Indonesians favoring hadd 
criminal punishments (such as cutting the hands of thieves) and 52 per cent 
favoring some form of Islamic legal code. 

The Islamic Supreme Council of America's Hisham Kabbani says 5-10 percent of 
American Muslims are extremists. Given these complications, it is not 
surprising that estimates vary considerably. On the one hand, the Islamic 
Supreme Council of America's Hisham Kabbani says 5 to 10 percent of American 
Muslims are extremists and Daniel Yankelovich, a pollster, finds that "the 
hate-America Islamist fundamentalists . averages about 10 percent of all 
Muslims." On the other, reviewing ten surveys of British Muslim opinion, I 
concluded that "more than half of British Muslims want Islamic law and 5 
percent endorse violence to achieve that end." 

These ambiguous and contradictory percentages lead to no clear, specific count 
of Islamists. Out of a quantitative mish-mash, I suggested just three days 
after 9/11 that some 10-15 percent of Muslims are determined Islamists. 
Subsequent evidence generally confirmed that estimate and suggested, if 
anything, that the actual numbers might be higher. 

Negatively, 10-15 percent suggests that Islamists number about 150 million out 
of a billion-plus Muslims - more than all the fascists and communists who ever 
lived. Positively, it implies that most Muslims can be swayed against Islamist 

The writer is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished 
visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


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