How Muslims really think about Islam

I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.

For instance, the survey found a really disturbing and widespread belief in most Arab countries that Shias are not real Muslims. Interestingly, in Iraq (82 percent) and Lebanon (77 percent), countries with Shia majorities but notably torn by sectarian strife, Sunnis are significantly more likely to say that Shias are Muslims than are Muslims in Arab countries with small Shia populations. But 53 percent of Egyptians, 50 percent of Moroccans, 43 percent of Jordanians, and 41 percent of Tunisians -- all countries with very small Shia populations -- said that Shias are not Muslims. In Indonesia, 56 percent said they were "just a Muslim" and rejected identification as "Sunni."

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Middle East is being reshaped by a rising Islamist generation, Muslims older than 35 are significantly more religious than those under 35. They are more likely to pray several times a day, to attend mosque, to read the Quran daily, and to say religion is important in their lives. And the margins are pretty wide. In Morocco, the older generation is 19 points more likely to read the Quran daily; in Tunisia, the older generation is 17 points more likely to attend mosque once a week; in the Palestinian territories, the older generation is 23 points more likely to pray several times a day. This generational divide was the widest in the Middle East compared to any other region of the world.

Another interesting question had to do with the question of interpretation. Asked whether there was a single interpretation of Islam or multiple interpretations, more than 50 percent answered "single" in every African country surveyed, as did more than 69 percent of every Asian country. Seventy-eight percent of Egyptians and 76 percent of Jordanians said "single," but no other Arab country had more than 50 percent.

There's a lot more in this important and intriguing report. Anyone interested in how Muslims today think about their own religion should definitely check it out -- and also look for the second report focused on political and social issues promised for later this year.

Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages

Marc Lynch

Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Yemen.

This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that -- a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)

Brennan's main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration's "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn't waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen's problems).

Now, many would take issue with his presentation of American priorities and actions. I wanted to ask questions about the effectiveness of Hadi's military reforms, and the feelings of exclusion among many activists and political trends despite the official political dialogue. I don't think many in the room were convinced by the claims about drone strikes, whether on civilian casualties, anti-Americanism, or legality. But I do think that it's an unambiguously good thing that Brennan felt the need and the desire to come out and publicly articulate the kind of comprehensive political strategy for Yemen for which many of us have long called. That comprehensive policy might not really be there yet, but the speech was an important point of entry for all future debate about Yemen and I for one found it a positive development to have these concerns addressed so directly.

That's the good. The bad? After Brennan's speech about Yemen, moderator Margaret Warner asked only a few desultory questions about Yemen. She then immediately shifted to a series of questions about Syria, which while interesting had nothing to do with Yemen. And then, to an even longer series of questions about cyber-security, neither interesting nor to do with Yemen. And then the controversy over leaks ... ditto. The audience started strong, with several questions about Yemen and about drones. But soon enough, attention wandered to Nigeria, to al Qaeda, back to cyber-security, and at its lowest point to an utterly moronic question about the Muslim Brotherhood's alleged penetration of the U.S. government. I worried that the Yemeni Twitterati were going to spontaneously combust from accumulated outrage. Even in an event about Yemen, John Brennan could barely buy a question about Yemen from his easily distractible Washington audience. C'mon, DC!