A new study is making rounds on the Internet with big claims about views of the self-described Islamic State. According to an article by the Clarion Project, more than 8 million people in the Arab world “support” the group, and as many as 42 million express at least “somewhat positive” views. These alarming numbers have grabbed the attention of the blogosphere and more mainstream outlets like Fox News and the Daily Express, which featured the claims beneath headlines warning about 42 million Muslims’ support for ISIS.
Clarion’s “analysis” is far from sound. A closer look reveals serious methodological weaknesses in their assessment of polling data, rendering their broad assertions about Arabs’ “support” for ISIS highly misleading.
Comparing Unrelated Questions
The Clarion Project based its assessment on four public opinion polls conducted by four different groups in eleven different countries between 2014 and 2015. It lumped together percentages of views of ISIS from each country, and reasoned that the sum total was representative of Arabs’ “support” for ISIS.
But what’s important to know is that the polling data Clarion cites ask different questions, ones whose answers can’t be directly compared and collated.
A 2015 poll conducted by an Iraqi polling organization asks respondents if they consider ISIS a “terrorist movement” or not. A 2014 Zogby poll asks respondents which faction they most favor in the Syrian civil war. Another poll conducted in October 2014 by the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (WINEP) asks about “positive” or “negative” views of ISIS, as does a November 2014 poll by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
The polls by WINEP and the Arab Center for Research—which both specifically ask about positive and negative views—may be comparable, but they shouldn’t be lumped together with polling data from the Iraqi polling organization and Zogby, which ask different questions. Typically, analysis of polling data should only compare closely related topics. To lump together data that asks different questions obscures the original intent of the polls, as well as the significance of their respective results.
A Questionable Source
The Clarion Project’s reliance on an October 2014 summary of polls commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Peace (WINEP), and promoted by the Fikra Forum, is curious, as well.
The PDF of the poll’s major findings directs readers to an article written by WINEP Fellow David Pollock. When the Bridge Initiative contacted him and asked about the group that administered the poll, he demured, indicating that the outfit behind it was a “leading commercial survey firm” that desired to remain anonymous.
It is usually the case that surveys of this sort communicate more details about the groups administering them with greater transparency than is provided here. It is difficult to take seriously the results of a study conducted by an organization that refuses to reveal any details about itself. The impartiality of its results is unknown, and readers are left to rely solely on the the claims of the group that commissioned the survey (in this case WINEP).
A major problem that plagues the study is the degree to which it extends its analysis widely, assuming that the trends it highlights in some countries will necessarily translate to others countries.
The polls that the Clarion Project cites measure public opinion in 11 countries. Yet there are 22 Arabic-speaking countries of the Arab league, meaning that the data Clarion offers only represents half of all Arab states. To grow their analysis, they apply the averages of the Arab countries listed in the polls to all others. This extrapolation is how they estimate the vast numbers of ISIS supporters in the Arab world.
After lumping together unrelated polling statistics, Clarion comes up with a number of “strong supporters” that is just over 8 million, “a percentage of 5.8% support” in these 11 countries. Then, they say, “if we extend that average [5.8%] to the other 11 Arab countries [our italics] with a total population of 370 million, you get a result of 21,460,000 strong supporters of the Islamic State in the Arab world overall.”
They also similarly spin out numbers from some Arab countries on “somewhat positive” views: “If the average of 11.5% is consistent across the entire Arab world, then up to 42,550,000 Arabs view the Islamic State at least somewhat positively.”
What results is not a scientific measurement of Arab views of ISIS, but an unsubstantiated leap — one premised on the idea that there is conformity of views across 22 different countries. Without the specific data from those countries, though, there is no way to know whether or not that is true.
“Muslims” Become the Boogeymen
One of the immediate negative consequences of this Clarion Project study was its misrepresentation online and in the media. Though Clarion’s article claimed to measure Arab attitudes, those that re-posted their article across the Internet gave it headlines that zeroed in on Muslims instead. Fox News, Jihad Watch, Town Hall, and dozens of other right-leaning websites and blogs warned of widespread Muslim support for ISIS.
There is certainly a great deal of overlap between Arabs (a linguistic group made up of diverse religious people) and Muslims (a religious community), and it is likely that the vast majority of those whose views were represented in these polls are Muslim. Still, it is disingenuous to represent the views of one group as representative of the views of another group.
Using this data to say something frightening about Muslims underscores a tendency to fixate on Islam, and refract any negative information coming out of the Middle East as further evidence that Muslims and their religion are dangerous and deficient in one way or another.
History of Bias
The Clarion Project, formerly the Clarion Fund, has a history of fear mongering about Islam. The group, headed up by Raphael Shore, has produced a series of sensational documentaries about the Islam, including Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, and The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America. Ahead of the 2008 elections, Clarion distributed copies of Obsession to 28 million households in swing states.
Among the members of Clarion’s advisory board are Frank Gaffney, Zuhdi Jasser, and Daniel Pipes, well-known commentators who consistently advance misleading or unfounded notions about Islam. Ryan Mauro, Clarion’s national security analyst (who authored the analysis of the polls), has claimed that “Muslim patrols” are a security concern in Europe and that Somali refugees in the United States were becoming “homegrown terrorists.” He has also touted the “no-go zone” myth and written for Islamophobic blogs like Islamist Watch and David Horowitz’s Front Page. The media watchdog group Media Matters for America said of Mauro: “[He] and other Clarion Project members are not credible sources to discuss issues such as these given their virulent history of Islamophobia.”
It is becoming increasingly common for groups like the Clarion Project to couch prejudiced views in polls, “studies,” or “analyses.” The numbers they tout give their fearful narratives a veneer of credibility. This latest effort, though, is premised on conflations, inconsistencies, extrapolations, and misrepresentations. For these reasons, its big claims shouldn’t be taken too seriously.