Views of Violence

What drives public acceptance and rejection of attacks on civilians 10 years after 9/11

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, social scientists and counterterrorism experts have been struggling to understand what provokes someone to deliberately take the lives of innocent people. The religious veneer of al Qaeda's public posture led many analysts to search for answers in Islam's teachings. Some analysts have even argued that a wholesale revision of Muslim theology is the only way to defeat violent extremism.

Empirical evidence paints a different picture. Gallup analysis suggests that one's religious identity and level of devotion have little to do with one's views about targeting civilians. According to the largest global study of its kind, covering 131 countries, it is human development and governance - not piety or culture - that are the strongest factors in explaining differences in how the public perceives this type of violence.

The implications of these findings on public policy are far-reaching. The research suggests that to increase the public's rejection of targeting civilians, leaders would do well to focus far more on education and government accountability, and far less on religious ideology.

Human Development and Societal Stability Linked to Public Rejection of Violence

Rather than look to religion to explain public acceptance of violence, Gallup's analysis suggests that leaders should consider social and economic development and better governance. The way individuals think about violence against civilians, whether it is committed by the military or by an individual actor or small group, directly relates to the development and stability of society more broadly. Gallup analysts, however, cannot determine the direction of causality from the correlation.

Measuring Public Attitudes About Targeting Civilians

Gallup analysts set out to measure global opinion about the deliberate targeting of civilians by state and non-state actors, and its relationship to independent indicators, rather than attempt to define "terrorism." The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which deal with the protection of civilians, informed our survey question about military attacks on civilians. The U.S. Department of State report on Patterns of International Terrorism[1] guided our measurement of public attitudes toward individual or small group violence aimed at civilians. It is important to note that the questions specifically address the "targeting" of civilians, not simply their unintended harm as collateral damage.

Gallup scientists asked people to choose between absolutely rejecting targeting civilians as "never justified" and conditionally accepting the tactic as "sometimes justified." This simplification makes it easier to ask the same question globally.

The following two survey items, asked worldwide, provide the basis of Gallup's analysis of public attitudes about deliberate attacks on civilian targets. Throughout the report, Gallup refers to the "sometimes justified" response as "public tolerance" and "public acceptance."

Some people think that (read A-B). Which is your opinion? (INTERVIEWER: Read out loud "Never justified" and "Sometimes justified" ONLY. "Depends" is volunteered.)

1. Never justified

2. Sometimes justified

3. (Depends) (Volunteered)

4. (Don't know)

5. (Refused)

A. For the military to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified

B. For an individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified

Gallup analysts tested correlations between the level at which populations say these attacks are "sometimes justified" and a number of independent indicators, and they found human development and societal stability measures are most strongly related.

State Stability and Human Development Correlate Negatively With Conditional Support for Attacks on Civilians

Public Tolerance for Attacks on Civilians Is Linked to:

· Lower Human Development: In countries with lower United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) scores, people are more likely to say individual and military attacks on civilians are sometimes justified. This suggests that human development is a strong policy lever that leaders should engage to lower the risk of social unrest, rather than look to religious behavior or social norms. It is noteworthy that the percentage of a nation's GDP devoted to education also correlates with lower public acceptance of individual attacks on civilians, which further illustrates how important human development is in explaining varying levels of public support for attacks on civilians.

· Societal Instability: Gallup's research indicates that higher levels of public acceptance of attacks on civilians are linked to social unrest and national instability, underscoring the importance of this perception measure to the health of a society. Though in general the more a country suffers from poor human development, poor governance, and lack of stability, the less likely its public is to reject military attacks on civilians as never justified, there are notable exceptions. For example, the U.S., Israel, and New Zealand score high on measures of stability and human development, but their residents are among the most likely in the world to see military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified. This is an important reminder that while this analysis provides important insight into public sentiment about state and non-state violence, it cannot explain all differences.

· Lower National Wealth: Residents in richer countries in general are more likely than those in poorer countries to reject individual attacks on civilians. Two notable outliers are Egypt, a lower-income country, and Lebanon, where residents are among the most likely to say these attacks are never justified. On the other side of the spectrum, Singapore, a high-income country, is among the top 10 countries where residents are most likely to say individual attacks are sometimes justified. Wealth is associated with rejecting individual, not military, attacks on civilians.

· Poor Governance: Poor government accountability, lower transparency, and less freedom are linked to higher public tolerance for individual attacks on civilians, but not military attacks. This indicates that less empowered publics are more likely to see justification at times for sub-national groups' violence. Less trust in the government could make populations unlikely to extend this acceptance to military attacks on civilians, which may explain why there is no correlation between governance and the public's views of the actions of national defense officials.

Public Tolerance for Individual or Military Attacks on Civilians Is Not Linked to:

· Liberal Social Norms: Public tolerance for individual attacks on civilians is not linked to social norms as measured by external gender parity indicators. While gender equality may be a desirable outcome in its own right, the evidence does not support popular claims that socially conservative societies are more likely to sympathize with violence.

Public Tolerance for Military Attacks on Civilians Is Not Linked to:

· Military Spending: The links that analysts did not find were almost as important as the ones they did find. Most noteworthy is the absence of a relationship between the public's views of military attacks on civilians and military spending as a percentage of GDP. Though the U.S. boasts the largest military budget in the world, which is also among the highest as a percentage of GDP in the developed world, and its public is the most likely to say military attacks on civilians are sometimes justified, a relationship between these variables does not appear to hold globally. In other words, there is no correlation between public support for military attacks on civilians and how militarized a society is, as measured by its defense spending as a percentage of GDP. This suggests that a country can have a strong military and a public that unequivocally rejects deliberate military attacks on civilians.

· Wealth and Governance: GDP, education spending, and good governance likewise have no influence on public perceptions of military attacks on civilians. When it comes to military attacks on civilians, a country's individual political history likely plays a bigger role in shaping views than its level of development or wealth.

Predominantly Muslim Societies Reject Violence at Least as Much as Other Societies

Since 9/11, voices arguing that Islam encourages violence more than other religions have grown louder - most recently in the manifesto penned by Anders Breivik before he gunned down more than 70 people in Norway. In his manifesto, Breivik argues that Islam is intrinsically violent and peaceful Muslims are simply ignoring their faith's injunctions to kill. He cites dozens of European and American pundits to support this assertion. If this popular claim were true, it would logically follow that Islam's adherents would be more likely than others to condone violence, even if most find it easier not to follow through on their beliefs, as Breivik contends.

The evidence refutes this argument. Residents of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states are slightly less likely than residents of non-member states to view military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified, and about as likely as those of non-member states to say the same about individual attacks.

Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation Members Slightly Less Likely to See Miliatary Targeting of Civilians as Sometimes Justified

No Link Between Views of Violence and Importance of Religion

In addition to those who single Islam out, some pundits, most notably the "New Atheists," have accused religion in general of encouraging violence. Though the motivations of actual terrorists are beyond the scope of this brief, the evidence regarding public support for targeting civilians challenges this notion.

An analysis of public opinion from more than 130 countries, conducted as part of the Gallup World Poll, finds that public acceptance of violence against non-combatants is not linked to religious devotion. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, those who reject attacks on civilians are as likely as those who see them as sometimes justified to hold religion in high esteem. Though there appears to be a difference linking religiosity and sympathy for attacks on civilians among the residents of the U.S. and Canada, this difference is not statistically significant. In Europe and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), those who reject military and individual attacks on civilians are more likely to say religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Those who reject military attacks on civilians in MENA and Europe more likely to see religion as important

While the importance of religion has a neutral to positive effect on the likelihood of rejecting violence, inter-religious intolerance, as measured by the Gallup Religious Tolerance Index, has a negative effect in many regions.

The Gallup Religious Tolerance Index

Gallup developed the Religious Tolerance Index as a way to measure people's attitudes toward religious faiths different from their own. The index is based on agreement with the following five statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree):

· I always treat people of other religious faiths with respect.

· Most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society.

· I would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door.

· People of other religions always treat me with respect.

· In the past year, I have learned something from someone of another religious faith.

From the combination of their answers, Gallup places respondents in the following three categories:

Isolated. Isolated individuals tend not to be members of any particular faith group, but if they are members, they tend to believe in the truth of their perspective above all others. They do not want to know about other religious faiths, and they neither respect nor feel respected by those of other religious faiths.

Tolerant. The tolerant have a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward people of other faiths, and generally feel that they treat others of different religious faiths with respect. However, they are not likely to learn from or about other religions.

Integrated. Religiously integrated people go beyond a "live-and-let-live" attitude and actively seek to know more about and learn from others of different religious traditions. They believe that most other religious faiths make a positive contribution to society, and not only do they feel they respect others of different traditions; they also feel respected by them as well.

Sympathy for military attacks on civilians linked to religious Sympathy for individual attacks on civilians linked to religious

Placing high importance on religion generally relates positively with rejecting violence. Religious intolerance - a function of less, not more, religion - is generally associated with greater sympathy for attacks on civilians. Contrary to popular perceptions, less interfaith acceptance is commonly more prevalent among the less faithful. In the MENA region, for example, though the importance of religion is uniformly high, it is highest among those considered integrated, the most developed level of inter-religious tolerance, and lowest among those classified as isolated.

Religion is slightly more important to integrated vs. isolated in MENA

Americans and Canadians Are Most Likely to Say Military Attacks on Civilians Are Sometimes Justified

While the majority of world citizens agree that military attacks targeting civilians are never justified, a decade after 9/11, there is a wide range in the level of support for this view. A clear majority in Asia and MENA find military attacks against civilians unacceptable. This is not surprising considering the acute conflicts raging in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East.

Nearly half in U.S.-Canada see military attacks on civilians as sometimes justified

In contrast, regionally, residents of the U.S. and Canada are most likely to say that military attacks against civilians are sometimes justified. Americans are the most likely population in the world (49%) to believe military attacks targeting civilians is sometimes justified, followed by residents of Haiti and Israel (43%).

Americans are the most likely to say military attacks targeting civilians are sometimes justified

Europeans here break with their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada. The continent that fought two world wars and at one time used military conquest to colonize much of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, now has citizens whose sentiments regarding military attacks on civilians tracks closer to those of their former colonies, than that of their modern ally.

Individual Attacks on Civilians Receive Broad Condemnation

Whereas there is a 29-percentage-point spread between the highest and lowest levels of rejection of military attacks on civilians between MENA and the U.S. and Canada, global views regarding individual or small groups' attacks on civilians are more similar.

The identity of the attacker makes a difference to some people when weighing the justification of targeting civilians. When attacks are committed by a military, Americans and Canadians find them more acceptable (47% sometimes justified) than when they are committed by an individual (21% sometimes justified). Europeans, too, make a distinction, and are more likely to reject individual attacks than military attacks by eight percentage points.

On the other hand, populations in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, former Soviet countries, and MENA are more likely to view violence targeting civilians as uniformly unacceptable.

Global majority agree that individual attacks against civilians are never justified

Implications: Why Public Perceptions of Targeting Civilians Matters

It is important to note that public perceptions of civilian attacks do not necessarily predict violence against non-combatants, nor are terrorist activities or war crimes necessarily the result of public support. For example, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Mohamed Atta, and the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were both from middle-class Egyptian families. Yet, Egypt ties Finland as the country with the highest level of unequivocal rejection of individual attacks against civilians. Furthermore, Egypt ranks as one of the top countries in the world for rejecting military attacks against civilians. Norwegians are among the most likely to say individual attacks against civilians are never justified, though a Norwegian this year carried out one of the worst terrorist attacks in European history. This suggests that terrorist activity is largely on the periphery, carried out despite community rejection and not with its tacit support.

At the same time, high levels of public rejection of targeting civilians do suggest a higher respect for the value of human life, a prized asset for any society to cultivate. Not surprisingly, strong levels of popular rejection of deliberate attacks on civilians are linked to a healthier, more stable society, a lower risk of social conflict, and higher levels of human development. Whether public perceptions regarding the sanctity of human life produce these outcomes, or if these conditions produce healthy social norms, or both, is impossible to determine with the available data. However, there is a link between public perceptions regarding civilian life and important societal outcomes; understanding these sentiments is a leadership mandate.

Moreover, whereas terrorist groups are not legitimate representatives of their countries of origin or the national or religious groups they claim to represent, militaries in contrast are legitimate state actors, representing the citizens of their countries. Not only does the military represent the public in a democratic state, but it is made up of a cross section of that public. Strong public consensus against the military targeting civilians as never justified means members of the defense establishment will be intrinsically and strongly committed to avoiding civilian casualties as well as to holding accountable those who violate the laws of war, a foundation to global peace and security.

Survey Methods

Gallup is entirely responsible for the management, design, and control of this study. For the past 70 years, Gallup has been committed to the principle that accurately collecting and disseminating the opinions and aspirations of people around the globe is vital to understanding our world. Gallup's mission is to provide information in an objective, reliable, and scientifically grounded manner. Gallup is not associated with any political orientation, party, or advocacy group and does not accept partisan entities as clients.

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults in each country, aged 15 and older, from 2008 through 2010. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranges from ±1.66 to ±5.8 percentage points. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Regional Comparisons

Regional Comparisons






Abu Dhabi Gallup Center

The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center is a Gallup research hub based in the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It is the product of a partnership between Gallup, the world's leading public opinion research firm, and the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi.

Building on Gallup's seminal work in the field of Muslim studies, the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center (ADGC) offers unmatched research on the attitudes and aspirations of Muslims around the world. In addition to its worldwide scope, the ADGC focuses on the specific priorities of its regional base and presents innovative analysis and insights on the most important societal challenges facing the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

[1] For the purposes of this report, however, we have chosen the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d). That statute contains the following definitions: The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

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