Brisbane, November 4, 2016 (Alochonaa): Recent reports of extensive support for suicide terrorism in Bangladesh have, predictably, proved controversial. Suicide terrorism is perhaps the most feared and most deadly form of terrorist attack, and mass bombings and shootings by lone wolves or suicide cells have caused some of the highest casualty tallies in recent years. Historically, most polls of Bangladesh and elsewhere have yielded relatively low levels of support for suicide terrorism (often in the low single digit percentages), irrespective of the degree of Islamism in the country. However, recent polls produced by American think-tanks and universities have suggested otherwise, much to the outrage of people who are worried about the country’s image.
In the Bangladesh case, the recent polls have been jarring. Some opinion polls reportedly reveal as high as 40% support for suicide terrorism. That is extremely high and has led to spirited, outraged defences of Bangladesh’s political culture and public opinion. These counter-claims are not, however, based on evidence. Opinion polls are typically fraught with danger because of loaded questions and over-simplified answer choices, yet the critics of polls on terrorism in the Muslim world rarely have anything but anecdotes or non-comparable surveys to counter them.
For instance, one analysis claimed that 40% percent of the public “supporting” suicide terrorists in Bangladesh would be a staggering increase in the number of attacks. That seems logical, until we consider the fact that human beings do not always personally carry out actions they are in favour of, particularly when they are dangerous costly, or inconvenient. Hence, I my be in favour of taxing the rich more but I am not going to go and collect their money myself. I may be in favour of increasing the strength of the police force or fire brigade but that does not make me a volunteer. I might even be in favour of war against certain countries but be too cowardly, too unfit, too stupid or too old to fight personally (the “armchair warrior” is a common and, perhaps, the most direct analogy here).
Opinion polls are frequently unable to capture complicated opinions and so must settle for a potentially divisive and simplified snapshot of ideas.
Hence, if I was asked if I was in favour of the death penalty, I would say no in general terms, even though there are many people I would not hesitate to kill given the chance. Had I been present during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s residence, for instance, I would not have found myself in a moral dilemma on pulling the trigger, even though I would not have thought it wise to have him executed if captured.
That is because I have complicated and contextual views about something so terrible as killing and its uses and consequences. Similarly, I am opposed to Islamist suicide terrorism but I can think of several ways a question could be phrased to induce me to answer “yes” to suicide strategies more generally.
Absent the goals, context and targets of my hypothetical actions, I can only give limited responses that cannot capture the full range of my potential behaviours. In a similar vein, large numbers of people in Muslim countries (often majorities in the polls) think that the death penalty for blasphemy or for apostasy is perfectly acceptable, yet their theoretical support for terrorism is extremely low. For these respondents, coercing people and destroying their religious freedom through state-sponsored violence is natural and fair, but whatever they think of as “terrorism” is entirely different. Here, the respondents are seeing a substantive distinction that I do not, a fact made more curious by the religious motivations of terrorists or blasphemy trials alike. People are complicated, their views are nuanced, inconsistent and often arbirtary. Get used to it.
All things considered, the recent survey in the Bangladesh case may or may not reflect some useful archetype of Bangladeshi views but the solution to the problem is more and better polling, rather than simple rejection via anecdote.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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