Why do we keep carrying out polls on terrorism?

The questions surrounding how many Muslims support terrorism and hence represent a threat to Western societies never seem to end.  It seems that this is an obsession with us.  This is not that surprising when “politicians” like Donald Trump tell the world that “Muslims hate us”.  Not just the terrorists – all Muslims, which is why he called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US.

The Donald aside, there have been innumerable polls in recent years carried out in quite a few countries asking Muslims what they think of groups like Islamic State, whether they think Western governments should allow Sharia law to be practiced and whether or not they can justify the use of violence.  We here in Canada had the famous Environics survey back in 2007 which seemed to indicate that upwards of 25% of Canadian Muslim respondents did not reject outright those who would plan acts of terrorism in our country.  Two new polls have just come out, one on Arab youth attitudes towards IS (spoiler alert – the vast majority rejects the group) and one on Muslim beliefs on a variety of social issues in the UK.  Apparently the latter’s findings on the desire for Sharia law is causing quite the stir in England.

What should we make of these efforts to gauge public opinion when it comes to terrorism and other sensitive issues?  I am no expert on the reliability of polling methods – although I have heard that the shift from landline telephones to cell phones is having a negative impact on survey results – but there is a bigger point to be made here.

Generally speaking, at any time the vast, vast majority of people of any ethnicity, race, religion or other category reject terrorism and the use of violence to produce political change.  This should not be a surprise to anyone.  Terrorism has been, and in all likelihood will always be, a fringe phenomenon that attracts limited quantities of people.  Even with the concern over Western European foreign fighters in Syria – who number in the thousands and cannot be ignored – this figure is dwarfed by the total Muslim population on the continent.  Should you add in the hangers on and supporters, and perhaps those who stand by doing nothing despite their awareness of extremists in their midst, you are still left with infinitesimal percentages of overall Muslims.  We don’t need polls to tell us this and we should stop asking Muslim populations to answer these questions on a regular basis.

That is indeed the good news that is worth highlighting: very few people support terrorism.  And yet there is a cautionary note.  Despite the low numbers, terrorism does not need many people to have a disproportionate effect.  A single suicide bomber who chooses his venue carefully can kill and maim dozens: two or three acting in concert can magnify the death and destruction significantly (we saw that in Paris and Belgium).  This is why we need to care about who supports terrorism.  Concluding that extremist acts are few and far between in any given country, do not pose existential threats, should be accorded a lower priority in light of all the other problems facing any given society, and need to be seen for what they are will not be acceptable.  Citizens demand that the State interdict terrorist acts and apprehend the perpetrators before they act.  Failing to do so  leads to public criticism, a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to keep its people safe, and backlashes of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant anger.

It is hard to imagine another tiny set of actors who gets the same attention as terrorists.  We have magnified the threat they pose and in essence given them the propaganda victory they so crave.  We need to view terrorism from the proper perspective and not overindulge on the individuals and groups that mean to do us serious harm.  We need to take a step back and see terrorism for what it really is: a low frequency phenomenon that is best handled by the agencies we task with countering it.

And yes, we need to do a lot more at the earlier stages of radicalisation, getting communities and local actors involved to nip violent extremism in the bud.  But even there the numbers are small.  We have to stop inflating the threat – that only serves the terrorists’ agenda.




By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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