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Al Jazeera poll shows alarming levels of support for ISIS

Al Jazeera poll shows alarming levels of support for ISIS
Published 26 May 2015 

'Do you support ISIS victories in Iraq and Syria?' This is the question being posed by Al Jazeera Arabic news channel in one of its regular Arabic language polls.

So how many Al Jazeera Arabic viewers are willing to give their anonymous vote in favour of an ISIS victory? At time of writing the poll had attracted more than 36,000 votes, with a staggering 81% in support of the ISIS and only 19% rejecting the group.

What, if anything, does this tell us about support for ISIS in the Arab world?

Most of Al Jazeera Arabic's audience comes from the Sunni Muslim world, with high viewerships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera Arabic is owned by the Qatar Government and, despite claims of independence, follows Doha's foreign policy diktats closely.

The Government of Qatar has an ambiguous record when it comes to supporting ISIS. The official line is that Qatar supports the moderate (Sunni) Islamist opposition, and Qatar has joined the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. But concerns have been raised that funding from loosely defined 'private donors' from Qatar (along with UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) has been funnelled to Sunni militants including Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force, as well as ISIS. [fold]

Al Jazeera Arabic has operated as an unofficial mouthpiece for various Sunni opposition voices, much more so than its arch-rival, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya. It is perhaps no coincidence that President Obama earlier this month snubbed Al Jazeera Arabic and instead gave his second interview to Al Arabiya.

So far, more than 30,000 votes have been cast in favour of ISIS. Anonymous online polls can of course be manipulated by motivated groups, but this result does reflect a silent support base that may not voice its thoughts publicly. In his recent book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explain the strange allure of ISIS to many Sunni Muslims.

Those who say they are adherents of ISIS as a strictly political project make up a weighty percentage of its lower cadres and support base. For people in this category, ISIS is the only option on offer for Sunni Muslims who have been dealt a dismal hand in the past decade — first losing control of Iraq and now suffering nationwide atrocities, which many equate to genocide, in Syria. They view the struggle in the Middle East as one between Sunnis and an Iranian-led coalition, and they justify ultraviolence as a necessary tool to counterbalance or deter Shia hegemony. This category often includes the highly educated.

So, despite the atrocities, despite the touted international support for crushing ISIS, and despite the efforts policy-makers put into distancing ISIS militants from the religion of Islam, there remains a large body of public opinion in the Arab world which sees ISIS as the warriors of Sunni Islam and the defenders of the Arab world against the scourge of Shi'ism and the interventionist West.

This poll is a small snapshot of dissent, but a potent warning to those who think defeating ISIS on the battlefield will lead to the group's demise.

Photo by Flickr user Day Donaldson.

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