Of minds and metrics

Michael Barone
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Posted: Aug 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Metrics are hard to come by in the war on terrorism. We can know the number of improvised explosive devices that go off in Iraq and the number of suicide bombers there, but we can only guess at whether these numbers represent the last throes of a terrorist movement or its continuing growth.

 We can count the number of days the Iraqi parliament has moved the deadline for drafting a constitution -- seven, as this is written -- but cannot be sure what the effect of a finally drafted constitution will be.

 We can note that some 220,000 Iraqis took part in deliberations over the constitution and that the Iraqi electricity supply now exceeds that of prewar levels.

 But the most important changes occurring -- not just in Iraq, but across the Muslim world -- are changes in people's minds. These are harder, but not impossible, to measure.

 George W. Bush has proclaimed that we are working to build democracy in Iraq not just for Iraqis, but in order to advance freedom and defeat fanatical Islamist terrorism around the world. Now comes the Pew Global Attitudes Project's recent survey of opinion in six Muslim countries to tell us that progress is being made in achieving that goal.

 Minds are being changed, and in the right direction.

 Most importantly, support for terrorism in defense of Islam has "declined dramatically," in the Pew report's words, in Muslim countries, except in Jordan (which has a Palestinian majority) and Turkey, where support has remained a low 14 percent. It has fallen in Indonesia (from 27 percent to 15 percent since 2002), Pakistan (from 41 percent to 25 percent since 2004) and Morocco (from 40 percent to 13 percent since 2004), and among Muslims in Lebanon (from 73 percent to 26 percent since 2002).

 Support for suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq has also declined. The percentage reporting some confidence in Osama bin Laden is now under 10 percent in Lebanon and Turkey, and has fallen sharply in Indonesia.

 Similarly, when asked whether democracy was a Western way of doing things or could work well in their own country, between 77 percent and 83 percent in Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Indonesia say it could work in their country -- in each case a significant increase from earlier surveys. In Turkey, with its sharp political divisions, and Pakistan, with its checkered history, the percentages hover around 50 percent.

  Polls in the United States may show that Americans have become less supportive of our efforts in Iraq, as the suicide bombings and roadside-bomb attacks continue. But the Pew polls in these Muslim countries demonstrate that those attacks have moved Muslim opinion against the terrorists and toward democracy. Muslims around the world cannot help but notice that Iraq is moving, however imperfectly, toward representative government. They can't have missed the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon and the expulsion of Syrian forces from Beirut. They may have noticed the small concessions to democracy in Saudi Arabia.

  They may also have noticed that Egypt will have its first contested election for president next year.

 "There were no arguments over the United States, Israel, Palestine, Iraq or any of the other 'hot spots' that used to dominate every meal and spill over into tea, coffee and dessert," writes Mona Eltahawy in The Washington Post of her trip to Egypt this summer. "This time, all conversations were about a small but active opposition movement in Egypt that since December has focused on ending the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. I have never heard so many relatives and friends take such an interest in Egyptian politics or -- more important -- feel that they had a stake in them." Minds are indeed changing.

 This is not to say that everybody in these countries has good things to say about the United States. But we are not engaged in a popularity contest. We're trying to construct a safer world. We are in the long run better off if Muslims around the world turn away from terrorism and move toward democracy, even if we don't like some of the internal policies they choose and even if they don't have much affection for the United States.

 Two generations ago, Americans, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths, changed minds in Germany and Japan. The Pew Global Project Attitude's metrics give us reason to believe that today's Americans, at far lower cost, are changing minds in the Muslim world.