Pew polls and Muslims: An incomplete picture

The Sam Harris and Bill Maher versus Ben Affleck debate on Muslims/Islam lit up the internet a few years ago. It’s often cited as an example of facts and logical thinking on religion triumphing over political correctness, especially when it comes to Islam. Some of the Pew polls cited in the debate show up often in online arguments to critique Islam and Muslims. While these polls are likely to be accurate (Pew is a fairly reputable pollster), the key is interpreting them with context. Referencing these polls to make generalizations is unhelpful and not grounded in reality. I aim to dispell some of the hasty conclusions people sometimes make from these polls.

One of the most commonly cited polls is this one:

1. Support for sharia across Muslim majority countries

This is often cited to show radicalization and extremism among most Muslim populations across the world. But there are several nuances to this survey that are overlooked.

The first issue is that wanting sharia to be the law of the land is not per se extremism. Sharia is a diverse legal system with large variations in its interpretations. Many Muslims only see it as applying to Muslims:

Not only this, a large percentage of Muslims in many Muslim majority countries do not support the criminal law aspects of sharia and likely see it as personal law only:

It’s very important to note that these percentages are of those Muslims who support sharia law already. So the actual percentage of Muslims that support corporal punishment is much lower in most of these countries. For example, 35 percent of Turkish muslims who favor sharia law also favor corporal punishment. But only 12 percent of all Turkish muslims supported sharia law in the first place. Which means the overall percentage of Turkish muslims that support corporal punishment for theft is a measly four percent. Safe to say, sharia based corporal punishments are not coming any time soon to Turkey.

When you run the numbers for more conservative countries like Malaysia, you see that around 40–50 percent of all Muslims oppose corporal punishment for theft. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, nearly 7 in 10 Muslims overall do not support this. In Bangladesh, about 60 percent of Muslims are against corporal punishment.

Now, there are several countries where large majorities do support these kinds of punishments. And in many countries a signicant minority supports these laws. It is a fair critique to question why they do so. But even here we can find contradictions between the polls and the reality on the ground.

For example, in Pakistan a sizable majority of all Muslims support the use of corporal punishment for theft according to the polls. But the religious parties that would actually implement these laws barely have any seats in the parliament. Instead, Pakistanis overwhelmingly vote for non-Islamist parties at the federal and state level. This can indicate that seriously implementing these kinds of laws may not be a high priority or even something that the average Pakistani desires.

Furthermore, polling questions like this are prone to certain biases. In some polls asking about support for the death penalty, it’s been found that the majority of people tend to prefer life imprisonment when given a choice between the two punishments. But if given only the option of the death penalty, people are much more in favor of it. Similarly, if given the choice between corporal punishment and jail time for theft, it’s possible some of those polled may have supported jail time.

Another important piece of information often missing from analyses of these polls is that many other countries around the world have laws considered extreme by liberal democratic standards. In China, non violent crimes like economic fraud can be punishable by death. In many southeast Asian countries, a possible penalty for drug trafficking is death. Religiously inspired laws ban divorce in the Philippines and punish abortion with serious prison sentences in some Central American countries. Slaughtering cattle can merit life imprisonment in some Indian states. It would be useful if we compared the sharia Pew polls to polls in some of these countries on public support for these laws. It is unwise to paint Muslims as uniquely in favor of harsh punishments for non-violent crimes.

While many Muslim majority countries have severe restrictions on civil liberties, there are several that are far more liberal. Homosexual activity is legal in some European, central Asian, Asian, and African Muslim majority countries. In Bosnia, the government has approved comprehensive legislation to protect gay rights. In addition, a few Muslim countries do not have the death penalty or have imposed a moratorium on the punishment.

All these nuances about sharia and Muslims do not imply that imposition of religious law on others is acceptable under any circumstance. But what it does mean is that describing Muslims and Muslim countries as a monolith without major differences in viewpoints is incorrect and unhelpful. The use of a single poll taken at one point in time shouldn’t determine one’s outlook on a population with nearly 2 billion members.

Thoughts on the world, mostly politics.