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Database Spotlight: Muslim Public Opinion and Public Opinion in the Islamic World on Terrorism, al Qaeda and U.S. Policies

Investigators from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), in conjunction with a team of researchers from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), released two datasets that examine how Islamic extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, are viewed in the context of the larger Muslim society and culture.

Together, Steven Kull and Stephen Weber, the Chief Operating Officer of the Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA), compiled data to create two datasets that investigate this phenomenon. Although specific research of al Qaeda has been very prominent since the September 11 attacks, they said the absence of research on how Muslim communities feel about such extremist groups is important to address.

The first dataset, entitled "Muslim Public Opinion on U.S. Policy, Attacks on Civilians, and al Qaeda," explores whether the goals and methods of extremist groups can be considered legitimate. It also examines the possibility of these groups receiving support, either directly or indirectly, from the larger Muslim community.

The second dataset, "Public Opinion in the Islamic World on Terrorism, al Qaeda, and U.S. Policies," focuses more specifically on the threat that the United States faces from these anti-American groups. Both datasets were created by using questionnaires given to focus groups in various countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco.

"[The variety of focus groups] had a lot of influence on how the questionnaires were developed," Kull said. "We asked open-ended questioned like, 'How do you feel about al Qaeda, what do you feel about al Qaeda's message and what are some arguments that you hear al Qaeda making that resonate with you?'"

Kull and Weber then sought to find out more broadly what the distribution of attitudes was and how widespread they were. They proceeded to ask those surveyed whether they supported or opposed the perceived goals of al Qaeda.

"What was striking, even though al Qaeda wasn't really so popular in these communities or people disagreed over their methods, was how many people did agree with a lot of their goals, which was a really important insight," Kull said.

These datasets represent just two of PIPA's myriad projects that seek to understand public opinion on international issues in the United States and around the world. In contrast to standard polls that examine simply the impact on voting trends, PIPA's work tries to recognize the "underlying frameworks and larger value structure" that people carry, Kull said.

Thanks to this research on broader communities rather than just the extremist groups alone, these PIPA datasets will help counterterrorism researchers and analysts, as well as policymakers, make informed decisions that affect the U.S. homeland.

To view and download the PIPA datasets, visit START on Dataverse.