The Washington Times

Michael Barone’s provocative thesis in his U.S. News column two weeks ago, based on a reading of the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey of public opinion from Muslim countries (among others), is that the United States is making progress in turning people away from support for terrorism. “George W. Bush has proclaimed that we are working to build democracy in Iraq not just for Iraqis but in order to advance freedom and defeat fanatical Islamist terrorism around the world,” he writes. “Now comes the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s recent survey of opinion in six Muslim countries to tell us that progress is being made in achieving that goal. Minds are being changed and in the right direction.” Is that really what’s going on, and if so, why? I’d certainly be delighted if it’s true. But I’m not sure we’re there yet.

The evidence in support of the Barone thesis is the marked decline Pew found in support among Muslims for suicide bombings in general and on Americans in Iraq in particular. (There were also higher levels of support for the proposition that democracy could work in their own countries, but we’ll leave that aside for today.) The percentage of respondents in Muslim countries expressing confidence in Osama bin Laden also declined significantly.

For example, of Muslims asked whether suicide bombing is “justified to defend Islam from its enemies” or “never justified,” the percentage of Pakistani respondents saying suicide bombing is “never justified” was up from 35 percent in March 2004 to 46 percent today, and for Moroccans, from 38 percent then to 79 percent. For Lebanon, “never justified” was up from 12 percent in summer 2002 to 33 percent today, and in Indonesia from 54 percent to 66 percent in the same period.

As for suicide bombing attacks “against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq,” the percentage of Muslims saying such attacks are “not justifiable” was 67 percent today for Indonesia, and for countries for which prior survey data are available, up from March 2004 to the present from 27 percent to 40 percent in Morocco, 24 percent to 43 percent in Jordan and 36 percent to 56 percent in Pakistan.

Those expressing “a lot of confidence in bin Laden” declined from May 2003 to today from 19 percent to 8 percent in Indonesia, from 37 percent to 14 percent in Morocco, and from 38 percent to 25 percent in Jordan. That figure was up, however, in Pakistan, from 24 percent to 29 percent.

“This is not to say that everybody in these countries has good things to say about the United States,” Mr. Barone writes. “But we are not engaged in a popularity contest. We’re trying to construct a safer world. We are in the long run better off if Muslims around the world turn away from terrorism and move toward democracy, even if we don’t like some of the internal policies they choose and even if they don’t have much affection for the United States.”

What the poll results seem indisputably to show is the dubiety of the often-propounded argument that U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq only serves to increase support in the Muslim world for terrorism. Far from being on net an inspiration, the tactics of the insurgency in Iraq viewed over the course of two years have turned people against bin Laden and the likes of Abu Musab Zarqawi.

It is possible, of course, that people are expressing less confidence in bin Laden personally simply because he has disappeared. Confidence in him has risen only in Pakistan, where no doubt there have been numerous “sightings” of him in the northwest in a manner reminiscent of Big Foot or Elvis. But the survey results do suggest, one can fairly say, that with his reckless and poorly planned Iraq policy, bin Laden has squandered the goodwill he built by killing thousands of Americans in New York and Washington.

Moreover, the Pew survey questions focus exclusively on suicide bombings. They do not probe, for example, whether there is any difference in Muslim views of suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq versus attacks taking other forms. Given the still-significant percentages who regard suicide bombings as at least “rarely” justified and who regard suicide attacks on Americans in Iraq as “justifiable” (still plurality or majority opinion in Lebanon, Jordan and Morocco), it seems that what we are seeing here may be mostly a sense of recoil among Muslims from the spectacle of Muslims blowing themselves up along with other Muslims. Are people taking a dimmer view of suicide attacks on Americans in Iraq because they are blowing up Americans – or because they are blowing up Muslims, if only the suicide bombers? Even if it’s only for the latter reason, that still represents progress of a kind: Opposition to suicide bombing begins at home. But I’m not sure how much safer we “Americans and other Westerners” are on account of this change of heart just yet.