Mark Mellman: American jihad?

Mark Mellman: American jihad?
© Greg Nash

Since Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE hasn’t forsaken his efforts to fan fear of Islam, I will pick up today’s column where I left off in December, examining more of the flaws in the poll Trump cited as “justification” for his views.

I should note again both that the sample in the poll was not random, which calls the whole enterprise into question, and that Kellyanne Conway, who conducted the survey, rightly condemned the White House contender for misusing it (though the sponsoring organization, the Center for Security Policy, was probably quite pleased with the way Trump put its data to work).


As before, the poll and its interpreters dealt poorly with understanding key concepts; this time I’ll focus on the handling of American Muslims’ attitudes toward jihad and violence. 

Many Americans think of 9/11, the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., and the severed heads of “infidels” when they hear the word jihad. But most American Muslims don’t. 

Jihad can certainly have that meaning. An evangelizing religion with universalist pretentions, Islam expanded in part by conquering others and offering them a choice between conversion and death.

But while violent imposition of Islam is one understanding of jihad, it is not the only one — nor is it the aspect with which most American Muslims identify. 

Only 16 percent of American Muslims in this poll defined jihad as “violent Holy War against unbelievers of Islam,” while fewer than 7 percent of respondents defined jihad as violent and also saw it as “an obligation of their practice of Islam.”

More than half saw jihad as “Muslims’ peaceful personal struggle to be more religious,” another conceptualization of jihad that enjoys a serious theological pedigree. Indeed, those who claimed to be religiously observant were even more likely than others to see jihad as a peaceful personal struggle. 

Moreover, key practitioners of violent jihad are not accorded legitimacy. Just 9 percent see the beliefs of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as consistent with Islam, while 8 percent say the same about al Qaeda. 

No one can cheer the fact that 8 percent or 9 percent of any group sees the beliefs of these terrorists as consistent with their own religion, but it still means that more than nine in 10 American Muslims don’t.

The numbers that engender perhaps the greatest concern are those condoning violence in some circumstances. 

Nineteen percent of these respondents said “violence in the United States is justified in order to make shariah the law of the land in this country,” and 25 percent said “violence against Americans here in the United States can be justified as part of global jihad.” 

Here we come to a broader issue of poll interpretation: is this a lot or a little? 

Poll numbers rarely have inherent meaning. Most often, they derive their meaning from comparisons across time and space.

Gallup put a similar question to thousands of Americans, across religion, enabling us to make exactly those kinds of comparisons. 

It’s true that 11 percent of U.S. Muslims said it is “sometimes justified” ... “for an individual person or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians.” 

By my lights that’s way too many.

But 26 percent of American Protestants said the same thing, as did 27 percent of Catholics and 23 percent of atheists and agnostics.

In other words, American Muslims are less than half as likely to endorse violence as members of other major religious segments in the United States.

So while 11 percent is “too many,” it’s objectively a rather small number, given how respondents seem to interpret the question. 

We don’t seem so exercised about Protestant, Catholic or agnostic violence, yet Gallup suggests we should be more concerned about that than about violence emanating from American Muslims.

Just about everything said by the Center for Security Policy about this poll is inaccurate, ill-informed or misleading, and its worry about American Muslims supporting violent jihad is equally misplaced. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.