Islam and participation in acts of political violence

Islam and participation in acts of political violence

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This is currently a hot political topic, but what does the science say?

I was thinking that a good experiment would take groups of people, and match them for alternate explanations: Age, gender, socio-economic status, level of education, nationality, occupation, cultural factors, political affiliation, immigration status, etc. (These are factors that many experiments control for when dividing subjects into groups, so is not unusual to do.) Then look for correlations, and see if particular religious affiliations (or non-believers), are more strongly correlated with participation in acts of political violence than are other factors.

I have not found such a study yet. There is a fair amount of research regarding attitudes towards violence, with mixed results (example, example, example, example), but these are generally not controlled for very many factors, and do not address any actual violence rates. There is also some research on actual violence rates (example, example), but again, few variables are controlled for, and the focus is on countries rather than people.

Is religious affiliation really a predisposing factor for people to actually commit acts of terrorism and politically-motivated violence?

A good, and very pertinent question. This speculative and blunt answer is based on the literature that I have studied as part of understanding behavior change. It is a simplification of the literature, but it should set a foundation that you could build on if you wanted to investigate further and develop a more nuanced view.

Is religious affiliation really a predisposing factor for people to actually commit acts of terrorism and politically-motivated violence?

I start with a basic assumption: As terrorists are people we can assume that they are motivated by the same things as people in general.

Based on this assumption it seems more than reasonable to expect that religious affiliation would influence behavior, and in some cases influence likelihood of violence and terrorism. In all that follows you can assume that I am contrasting one 'more benign' form of religious affiliation, such as atheism, with another form which is more easily used to justify violence, such as Christianity or Islam. The following are some reasons why having one type of affiliation rather than the other might affect behavior:

  1. Mental characteristics, such as values, attitudes, and beliefs, have a strong influence on behavior [e.g. 1]. Additionally, these mental attributes are influenced by information [e.g., 2], such as what might have been encountered in religious literature. Given this argument, it seems reasonable to assume that the religious literature that terrorists have read could have influenced their mental attributes, and in turn predisposed them, even if just to a small extent, to engage in terrorist behavior.

  2. Expected value has a strong influence on behavior [3]. Essentially, people are more likely to engage in behaviours that they believe will create value for them. For most of us, suicide is a pretty low value outcome but for certain religions, suicide to kill others is going to be rewarded by eternal life, along with a number of devoted companions. Likewise a war can be holy for some religious affiliations but not others. In light of this example, it seems reasonable to assume that religious beliefs that make a terrorist behaviour appear like it will be more rewarding, will in turn influence people with those beliefs,than those without, to be more likely to engage in that behaviour.

  3. Research suggests that most people generally require justifications for their actions to avoid congnitive dissonance [e.g., 4]. Those who have been raised by learning a religious scripture which presents many justifications for violence, would in turn have easy mental access to these justifications when thinking about how to act. Indeed, they might have access to the justification that a supreme, unquestionable, omnipent, ominpotent individual wants them to act in a violent way. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that individuals with these sets of justifications could use them to justify violence, while those not in possession of such justifications would not be able to.

I am happy to clarify, or add to this as you wish. I am sure I have oversimplified things in a few cases.


[1]Ajzen, I. and M. Fishbein (2000). "Attitudes and the attitude-behavior relation: Reasoned and automatic processes." European Review of Social Psychology 11(1): 1-33.

[2] Chaiken, S. (1980). "Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(5): 752-766.

[3] Wigfield, A. and J. S. Eccles (2000). "Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation." Contemporary Educational Psychology 25(1): 68-81.

[4] Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.

Islam in America Post 9/11

Muslim individuals continue to respond to Islamophobia and seek out open dialogue with broad non-Muslim communities. Some choose political activism, working with organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) or the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Some choose public and interfaith dialogues, opening up their homes to non-Muslims, inviting others to introductory classes on Islam, or co-hosting events with people from other religious traditions.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 brought Islam into the national and international spotlight with a new intensity. Its impact on the Muslim community cannot be overstated. When Al Qaeda, an Islamist militant network founded and formerly overseen by Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility for the attacks, many feared Muslims in America would be targeted for retribution. As people of many faiths and none came together in the wake of the attacks, many sought to stand by the Muslim community, offering protection and support. President George W. Bush visited a mosque in Washington, DC a few days after the attack. There he spoke of Islam as a peaceful religion, noting that “[t]hese acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”

Despite efforts by the White House and others to discourage Americans from targeting blame at the Muslim community after 9/11, the number of attacks against those who “looked Muslim” rose exponentially. Just days after September 11th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was shot outside of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. The turban he was wearing as a tenet of his faith was mistaken for a Muslim garment, and the murderer was seeking revenge for the terrorist attacks. In the weeks and years that followed, many people who were mistaken as Muslim, particularly South Asians and Arabs of any religion, became the targets of discrimination, hate crimes, and murder.

Muslim organizations and individuals suddenly came under scrutiny. Several prominent and trusted American Muslim charities such as the Holy Land Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation were shut down by the American government, charged with having ties to terrorists. Muslim Student Associations on college campuses across the country came under secret surveillance by American police. Muslims continue to be singled out by federal security. The FBI continues to closely monitor Muslim communities at mosques. While the federal agents often work collaboratively with Muslim community members, investigations are not always transparent. Many Muslims are eager to work with local and federal agents, while others are frustrated by the lack of privacy they are able to maintain.

Politicians have also added fuel to the fire of anti-Islam sentiments in the United States. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich identified sharia as “a moral threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” U.S. Congressional Representative Joe Walsh from Illinois said that there were “radical” Muslims in American neighborhoods that “try to kill Americans every week.” Within less than two weeks after Walsh made that statement at a town hall meeting in suburban Chicago, eight incidents of hate crime, primarily mosque defacements, were reported within the area. Representative Peter King of New Jersey chaired a series of congressional hearings beginning in 2011 to investigate the radicalization of American Muslims. The tone of the hearings coupled with the scrutiny King received for convening them underscores the tension that still exists in how Americans understand Islam and the Muslim community in the United States.

As public attention focused on Muslims in America after 9/11, many American Muslims asked themselves how their identities as Muslim individuals and communities living and participating in a western democracy fit into the American religious landscape. Muslim leaders and communities across the nation realized a need to educate their non-Muslim neighbors about Islam. Many Muslim communities opened their doors to the public, inviting non-Muslims to introductory lectures on Islam, and encouraging questions from non-Muslims. Even so, immediately post-9/11 many American Muslim women who had been veiling decided no longer to do so in order to look “less Muslim.” The hijab has seen resurgence in popularity more recently, as these women seek to reassert themselves as American Muslim women. Scholars like Islamic Studies professor Omid Safi of Duke University are becoming increasingly vocal in expressing the compatibility of Islam with American democracy. The years following 9/11 have also seen Muslim communities become more active in interfaith dialogue, co-hosting events with Christian, Jewish, or Hindu groups, and creating comfortable environments in which to converse and “break bread” together.

Today, many American Muslims continue to be victims of Islamophobia, the fear of Muslims. Mosques and Muslim community centers around the country have faced and continue to face vocal and legal opposition. In recent years these have included Park51 in lower Manhattan (dubbed in the media as “the Ground Zero Mosque”) and a planned Muslim community center and mosque complex in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Nearly a decade after September 11th, a taxi driver in New York was slashed by a passenger when the latter learned that the driver was Muslim. Mosques in places like Escondido, California and New Haven, Connecticut were the targets of arson attacks in 2019.

Within this post-9/11 context many Muslim public interest groups were founded and those already in existence became more vocal. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an umbrella group for many Muslim organizations that seeks to address many of the broader issues facing American Muslims, has maintained a proactive and important voice in shaping the discourse of Islam in America. The Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is also focused on political activism, specifically countering anti-Islam prejudice through lobbying. For example, CAIR has been involved in trying to stop anti-sharia legislation from passing in several states. Organizations like ISNA and CAIR, although not necessarily supported by all American Muslims, have been critical in framing the public discourse surrounding Islam in America after September 11th.

Manisha Gupta

Manisha obtained a B.S. in Business Administration, and a B.A. in Social Welfare, from the University of California at Berkeley before joining the program at UMass. During graduate school, the majority of her research focused on investigating antecedents and consequences of prejudice between ethnic minority groups, and methods of improving cross-ethnic coalition building, for which she was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Manisha will begin The Jacquelin Goldman Congressional Fellowship from the American Psychological Association starting in September, 2015. This provides psychologists with an interest in policies that affect the psychological development of children with an invaluable public policy learning experience to contribute to the more effective use of psychological knowledge in government and to broaden awareness about the value of psychology-government interaction among psychologists and within the federal government.

Jessica Stern, studying why they do what they do for 20 years

In this four-part series, BU Today looks at the work of BU researchers and medical experts who study and treat the causes and consequences of violence. Considered together, the four stories depict a vicious cycle of hurt, frustration, and vengeance that reverberates through every aspect of American life.

In August 2012, Jessica Stern visited a high-security prison in Sweden, where she spent six hours probing the psyche of a neo-Nazi inmate who had killed several immigrants. In the early 1990s, he had gone to Bosnia as a mercenary for Croatia in the war in what was then Yugoslavia. There, he killed Muslim civilians and soldiers and tortured prisoners of war. Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, studies perpetrators of extreme violence, terrorism, and the possible link between trauma and terror. She wanted to know what motivated the inmate to kill people. What role did his fascist beliefs play? The neo-Nazi, who Stern identified as X, told her that he just loved killing people.

In a case study published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law in April 2014, she reported that X, who had been raised (and beaten) by adoptive Swedish parents, was primarily motivated to become a mercenary and neo-Nazi killer “for the excitement and high adrenaline.” She also examined the role of a deradicalization program called Exit Sweden in his renunciation of neo-Nazism while in prison. In his discussion with Stern in 2012, X told Stern that he deeply regretted the crimes he had committed. He said he now felt “such a distance to violence altogether that sometimes I feel castrated.”

Her troubling and revealing interviews, with X and with other perpetrators of horrific violence, are the kind of qualitative research that few scholars have been willing to undertake. Stern, who has been doing this work all over the world, in the field and in prisons, for more than 20 years, believes that combating violent extremism requires an understanding of the complex motivations of those who are drawn to it. And the only way to understand their motivations, she says, is to talk with the perpetrators themselves. She has talked with members of paramilitary white supremacist and antigovernment cults in the United States, Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Gaza, Jewish terrorists in Israel, and violent Hindu extremists in India.

Jessica Stern, one of the world’s leading terrorism experts and a research scholar at the Pardee School of Global Studies, with Ibrahim Rashid (CAS’19) (left), and Pardee graduate student Justin O’Shea (center), who are helping with her research.

Just as there is no single brand of terrorism, Stern says, there is no singular profile of a terrorist and no set path to extreme violence. She has learned that people are motivated to become terrorists by reasons that may have little to do with the religious and political narratives they spin. They may be driven by fear, love, hate, idealism, trauma, a search for identity, a craving for adventure and glamour, or by greed for money, land, and power. Some people join terrorist groups because they want to be with their friends. For others, religious zealotry offers the simplicity of living in a world defined by good and evil, with no confusing middle ground. In some places where jobs are scarce, terrorism puts food on the table at home. Early on in her work, she identified perceived humiliation—either of an entire group or of an individual—as a strong risk factor.

Whether they are lone wolves or members of well-established terrorist groups, Stern says, terrorists “always have a grievance and that grievance is almost always something you can come to understand if you listen to what terrorists say. Their grievances are often based on real pain or real injustice. It is their actions—deliberately targeting noncombatants—that violate moral and legal norms. Sunni Arabs faced terrible injustices under the Malaki regime in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that violence against civilians was morally justifiable, or even politically useful.”

“Jessie is interested in understanding the psychology of people whom most of us are morally revolted by the idea of interviewing because of their involvement in, attraction to, and desire to conduct, horrific acts of violence,” says Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies, editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog on national security, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on National Security and Law. It is hugely demanding research, he adds: “You have to look at the world from their point of view without losing your abhorrence for the things they believe in.”

Wittes says Stern’s research is “extremely useful as a set of insights into the sort of people we have to kill, the sort of people we have to capture, the sort of people we have to engage with and flip and bring to our side—and the sort of people we have to convince young people who are on the edge that they don’t want to be.”

Thinking like a terrorist recruiter

Stern, coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015), applies the knowledge and insights gleaned from her interviews to scholarly analyses across several disciplines—international relations, political science, psychology, history, religion, national security. Some are included in her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God—Why Religious Militants Kill, and others are published in scholarly journals and mainstream publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. She shares what she has learned with government officials, national security leaders, and members of Congress. In January 2016, she testified about ISIS before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“Jessica Stern is one of our leading experts on terrorism and the use of violence for political purposes,” says Joseph S. Nye, the former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (where Stern earned a doctorate in public policy), who has served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and deputy under secretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology. “She is a brave woman and a smart scholar who avoids hyberbole and provides well-balanced analyses,” Nye says. “We need more voices like hers.”

Five Lessons from Jessica Stern’s Talks with Terrorists

  1. Motivation can’t be understood just by reading the political and religious manifestos.
  2. Personal history, including an experience of humiliation, can make people vulnerable to political or religious narratives.
  3. Religious terrorists see the world in terms of good and evil, with no gray, or middle, ground.
  4. Young terrorists are often confused about the religion they profess to follow.
  5. Alienation and confusion about identity often play a role.

Stern credits psychologist and pollster Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy’s Program for Public Consultation, with giving her advice that has long guided her research. “You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” she recalls Kull saying. “That was absolutely not the thing that political scientists did. I didn’t care,” she says. “I thought the data at the time were really bad. I was trained to do large N studies [statistical analyses of large databases that track terrorist incidents, including perpetrators, targets, type of weapon, and number of casualties] at the Kennedy School. Instead of doing what I was trained to do, I followed my intense curiosity.”

As it turned out, Stern found that she could empathize with her subjects so deeply that she could suspend all judgment, focusing instead on the mistaken logic that leads to their becoming terrorists. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, she notes, and she neither condones nor excuses the acts of the terrorists she has encountered.

“I try to think like a terrorist recruiter,” she says. “What does it take to get someone to join my group if they’re in a war zone? If they see that the president in Iraq is favoring Shiites, and Sunnis feel unsafe and aren’t getting what they were promised, and they were at the top of Iraqi society for decades and suddenly they’re at the bottom, well, that’s a lot easier job for me than to recruit a terrorist in, say, Massachusetts.” For someone in the West, who is not living in a war zone, she says, “the pain is more personal. Psychology is more important the farther away we are from a war zone.” It’s important, Stern says, to distinguish the terrorism of war zones from the acts of terrorism committed in the United States and European countries.

She began talking about humiliation as a risk factor for terrorism after she returned from her first meetings with jihadist leaders in Pakistan, in the late 1990s. There, a Kashmiri militant told her he had founded his group because “Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts…we are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves.”

Many of her colleagues were initially skeptical about her theory of humiliation. “I remember one guy saying, ‘What are you going to do, administer Prozac to terrorists?’ My sense was that he meant, you’re a girl, so when you talk to these guys, of course they’re going to tell you how they feel. Who cares how they feel—they kill people. That was the attitude. Now I think it’s become fairly accepted that humiliation is a major risk factor.”

Charismatic, but Machiavellian

“Most people look at the how, or the who, question of terrorism,” says Adil Najam, Pardee School dean and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and of earth and environent. “Jessica gets into the question of why do the terrorists do what they do. Most people make assumptions based on secondary material or statements. Throughout her career, she has made the effort, and taken the time, to talk to subjects. She is also amongst the few who have looked at terrorists, violence, and extremists across the spectrum of religions and communities.”

Studying terrorists is difficult work. Meetings in prison can take years to arrange. Encounters in the field can be dangerous. The contradictory requirements of US laws regarding national security and university Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which were originally established to protect human subjects from abuse by unscrupulous scientific researchers, are another obstacle. For example, Stern says, IRB regulations and US law prevent her from asking subjects if they have joined a terrorist group. Also, she says, the bulk of government funding for academic research on terrorism goes toward large quantitative studies.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, whom Stern is studying, was convicted of genocide and other war crimes.

Stern is part of a team at Boston Children’s Hospital studying Somali refugees and trauma and the risk of violence among Somali youth. Early findings indicate that trauma is associated with both “prosocial activism and antisocial activism, including support for violence,” she says. “We have also found that time online is a risk factor, while attachment to the heritage community, as well as the United States, are protective.”

She has also joined a group at the Harvard School of Public Health that is in the early stages of evaluating Boston’s nascent efforts to counter violent extremism (Boston was one of three pilot cities selected for President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism project). She is also working on a study of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader convicted by a United Nations International Criminal Tribunal of genocide and other war crimes in his campaign of terror against civilians. Stern has so far interviewed Karadzic in prison, in the Hague, on more than 10 separate occasions, meeting with him for 4 hours at a stretch, usually over 4 consecutive days. She is hoping to arrange additional interviews with him.

“He’s very different from anyone I’ve ever interviewed or talked to in this way,” she says. “He’s not only a war criminal, he’s also a psychiatrist, a published poet, and has worked as an energy healer. He is charismatic, but also Machiavellian. He’s manipulating me every second.” He wants to talk to her not just about the Serb mission, she says, but also about his favorite literature, much of which is transparently anti-Muslim. She is studying that literature, and his poetry, for clues to the man. In addition, she is conducting extensive research into the history and international politics of the war in Bosnia, searching the archives of the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, interviewing many US and Bosnian officials, and trying to get US government documents declassified. “I am taking a lot of time to weigh all the evidence,” she says.

“You can’t do a large N survey if you’re going to spend four hours at a time with your subject,” she adds. “I much prefer to focus on a small number of people, really looking at them deeply, rather than having someone else administer a survey form. Both kinds of work are really important. For a variety of reasons, I am good at something most people prefer to avoid—sitting and asking violent men about why they do what they do.”

The Interaction Among Multiple Dimensions of Religious Extremism in Indonesia

As mentioned, the discourse of religious extremism has mostly been related to the political context (Fealy, 2004 Zarkasyi, 2008). To illustrate the importance of not just exploring the political dimension when understanding religious extremism, we took a closer look at some 𠇎xtremist” Islamic movements in Indonesia (i.e., that score high in extremism on the political dimension). In an attempt to understand different forms of extremism more comprehensively, we compared these groups on the other three dimensions. Before outlining our findings, it is important to note that the classification of a particular group as politically extreme was based on specific historical events and developments: by acts of political rebellion by Darul Islam (Domain of Islam) and Negara Islam Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic State) in 1949. This was also the basis for selecting as extreme the current political movement Hizbut Tahrir and Islamic defender front (FPI) who have gained support after the reform of 1998 (Fealy, 2004 Muhtadi, 2009 Osman, 2010a).

There are important similarities between Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), and Hizbut Tahrir (HT) across all four dimensions of religious extremism. All groups score high in extremism on the political dimensions in that they demand a comprehensive legalization of sharia, a fully Islamic state, recreation of Caliphate, and the abolition of democracy in Indonesia. However, these groups differ from other politically 𠇎xtreme” groups in Indonesia. For example, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) supports a comprehensive legalization of sharia, but endorses democracy and rejects the revival of the Islamic state and Caliphate (Fealy, 2004). Another group (Laskar Jihad or Jihad Troops) demands comprehensive sharia and rejects democracy, but also rejects the revival of the Islamic state and Caliphate. Both these commonalities and differences have consequences for their relationship with other religious groups and the way they aim to achieve their goals. While we acknowledge the importance of unpacking the political dimension into constituent elements in some cases, our argument is that to fully understand these groups, we also need to explore where these groups stand on the other three dimensions of religious extremism (i.e., theological, ritual, and social dimensions).

In terms of extremism in the theological dimension, notions about an angry God who uses natural disasters punitively are particularly important to tease the different extremist groups apart. For instance, some Muslim groups in Indonesia claim that ritual celebration of the local tradition in Palu in Central Sulawesi is a main cause of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indonesian coast in 2018, killing more than 2000 people. Likewise, such attributions also dominated when explaining the 2018 earthquake in Lombok Island (Habdan and Baits, 2018). These groups emphasized that the earthquake is a punishment from God to show disapproval of the politically different attitudes that are promoted by the political leader of the Island (Hasan, 2018). Interestingly, such theological beliefs do not lead to a push for change of the political system, but only to an invitation to return to Islamic norms as they understand them. This shows that an extreme theological belief may not be correlated with extremism on the political dimension.

However, extremism in the theological dimension may also be related to a narrow interpretation of jihad as a core principle in Islam. Most Muslim groups believe that jihad means any zealous effort to bring about a better world (Esposito, 2002). However, some groups restrict its interpretation to waging holy war, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Salafi Jihadi groups, and Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (Haron and Hussin, 2013). Theological beliefs restricting the meaning of jihad to waging holy war have an impact on political extremism, in that these can drive believers into intentions to verbally or physically attack the hated out-groups to engage in jihad.

Finally, some groups that are located at the extreme end of the ritual dimension are actively campaigning to purify religious rituals and to suppress local traditions that are perceived as deviating from Islam. For example, some groups such as the Salafi movement and al Wahdah al Islamiyah in Indonesia campaign against local traditions and push for the Muslims to relinquish traditions that are perceived as not taught by the prophet (Salman, 2017). Importantly though, these movements do not use physical violence in their efforts, and they accept and participate in the political system in Indonesia. Thus, although these groups tend to be extreme on the ritual dimension, they are more moderate on other dimensions. For example, they have a broader conception of jihad (i.e., a struggle for positive change), and they do not prevent their members from participating in the current political system.

We have argued that extremism on the social dimension is represented by the tendency to blame others for the group’s disadvantage and to force compliance to specific in-group’s norms. We propose that the tendency to forcefully demand adherence to a narrow version of the in-group’s norms typically results from feeling threatened by out-groups’ norms. For example, the Muslim Forum of Bogor (FMB) released a public statement calling on the city mayor to ban the celebration of Cap Go Meh by Chinese people in the city. Even though such social extremism often involves intolerance of norm violations, social extremism is not always followed by extremism on other dimensions (e.g., ritual dimension). In particular, social extremism in Indonesia is rarely linked to terror campaigns.

Meaning and Purpose

The fourth element involves a sense of meaning to life. A meaningful life encompasses belonging to and serving something that is greater than the self. This is an “easy” one, since we are told:

“Did you then think that We created you in vain, and that you would not be returned to us?” (23:115- Al-Mu’minun: The Believers)

The easy part comes from the fact that:

“There has come to you from God a light and a luminous Book, through which God, by His grace, guides all who seek His good pleasure on the path of peace, and brings them out of the depths of darkness into light and guides them unto a Straight Path.” (5:15-16- Al-Ma’ida: The Table Spread)

Our purpose is to implement the prescriptions in the Qur’an towards a life of peace and the straight path. Attainment of peace and the straight path are through application of what is in the Qur’an, with bedrock of that action being our iman which arises from accepting the ayat (signs) of the Qur’an as truth and applying them.

One of the many purposes and a timely one, that we wish to highlight, is that we as Muslims have been given the responsibility of stewards of this Earth. We are encouraged to protect that which we have been allowed to borrow from Allah’s creation. Hence being mindful of the environment and actively promoting its sustainability is an obligation and purpose that we all must uphold.

“And it is He (God) who has made you successors/stewards upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful." (6:165- Al-An’am: The Cattle).

Another concept to consider is the idea of wealth. With respect to money, in the eyes of positive psychology, the goal of wealth is not to produce more wealth but to engender flourishing and increase one’s well-being. Research has shown that the quality of life one experiences does not always go hand in hand with material and monetary value that the richest American are no more “happier” than the middle class. One very crucial reason is because our well-being is comprised of more than just accumulating wealth. Instead, in order to achieve prosperity, and this by no means suggests solely monetary value but rather a broader spectrum of “success”, the wealth we accumulate in life should be used towards catalyzing our purpose.

“Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification, And have in their minds no favor from anyone for which a reward is expected in return. But only desire to seek for the Countenance of their Lord Most High And soon they will attain (complete) satisfaction” (92:18-21- Al-Layl: The Night)

Political violence

Political violence is violence which is perpetrated by people or governments in order to achieve political goals. It can include violence which is used by a state against other states (war) or it can describe violence which is used against non-state actors (most notably police brutality or genocide). It can also describe politically-motivated violence which is used by non-state actors against a state (rebellion, rioting, treason or coup d'etat) or it can describe violence which is used against other non-state actors. Non-action on the part of a government can also be characterized as a form of political violence, such as refusing to alleviate famine or otherwise denying resources to politically identifiable groups within their territory.

Due to the imbalances of power which exist between state and non-state actors, political violence often takes the form of asymmetric warfare where neither side is able to directly assault the other, instead relying on tactics such as terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and it can often include attacks on civilian or otherwise non-combatant targets that are perceived as proxies for the opposing faction. Many groups and individuals believe that their political systems will never respond to their demands and they thus believe that violence is not only justified but also necessary in order to achieve their political objectives. Similarly, many governments around the world believe that they need to use violence in order to intimidate their populaces into acquiescence. At other times, governments use force in order to defend their countries from outside invasions or other threats of force and coerce other governments or conquer territory. [1]

Health Consequences of War and Political Violence

Physical Health Consequences of Modern Warfare

Political violence and war are a major public health problem, not only because of the direct consequences, the deaths and injury caused by war, but also because of the longer-term effects on health and well-being for individuals, families, and communities.

As we have seen, disease and famine have always been common comcomitants of war and political violence, along with direct physical casualties, deaths, wounds, and disability. There are also consequences due to the loss of the health service infrastructure, which mean that people who fall ill during a conflict but not as a result of the conflict, may be more likely to experience more serious health consequences, including death, than they otherwise would because there are limited medical facilities available.

Iraq has had little peace since 1980, with the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, the First Gulf War of 1990–91, the sanctions imposed by the USA and Britain until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the current (at time of writing, April 2007) Gulf War. It is estimated that up to 1 000 000 people died in the Iran–Iraq War (see Table 1 ), and around 100 000–200 000 died in the First Gulf War. According to UNICEF, up to 500 000 children died as a direct consequence of the US/UK sanctions, and that the figure for deaths in Iraq since the invasion of 2003 is unknown as no one keeps accurate records, but an article in The Lancet in October 2006 estimed that perhaps 600 000 have died, with countless more maimed and wounded, and we do not know how many have succumbed to illnesses as a consequence of the war or because medical facilities are inadequate because of the war. The infrastructure of the Iraqi healthcare service has been severely damaged, as has the ability to provide clean drinking water and electricity. We do not have figures to indicate how many of these deaths are a direct consequence of war and how many have occurred as an indirect consequence due to the destruction of health service provision and the reduced availability of medicines and other basic requirements. Iraq over the last few decades is an unfortunate example of the impact of war and political violence in terms of the breadth of physical and mental health consequences, and how sophisticated countries – in this case the USA – still do not keep accurate records of casualties and health problems.

The proportion of wounded to dead is usually higher than in the past, particularly for developed countries, where most service personnel receive more effective lifesaving treatment. A wounded person is less likely to die of their wounds than in previous conflicts, but this has an impact on the cost to the state, with more people receiving disability pensions, and having longer periods in hospital, and a different impact on families, who may have to provide long-term care for a disabled person.

The war in the Congo, which has so far continued for a decade, has resulted in the deaths of several millions of people, with a large proportion being young children. The causes of death tend not to be combat, but diseases that do not receive adequate treatment such as diarrhoea and malnutrition. Again, this is the result of the damage to the infrastructure of the country, meaning that hospitals have limited resources and food supplies often fail to get through to where they are needed.

Since its recognition in 1981, HIV/AIDS has spread around the world very rapidly. It is estimated that there are around 40 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. While there are health programs which can be effective in reducing the incidence and prevalence of the disorder, these may only be temporarily effective because the permanent behavior change which is required does not last. The spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, has increased because of war and political conflict. This is because the incidence of violent rape and sexual abuse increases in a war zone, and traveling soldiers with the infection are likely to have sexual relations with people across a wide geographical area, thus increasing the spread of the disease.

Defining Themes of Islamic Culture

Painting with broad strokes a picture of billions of people undoubtedly oversimplifies and, at worst, runs the risk of caricature and stereotyping. It is important to recognize nuance and variation, both across Muslim cultures and within. Nonetheless, I believe that it is accurate to talk about an overarching Islamic culture, one that transcends race, ethnicity, and national boundaries. What does this culture look like? What are its defining psychological features? In the following sections, I summarize what I believe are six central themes. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but together the six themes capture what might reasonably considered the major defining psychological features of Islamic culture.


An obvious starting point for a culture defined by a religious denomination is the importance of religiosity. For many Muslims, religion is a central organizing theme of everyday life (Abu-Raiya 2013). It shapes one’s attitudes and moral judgments, public and private behaviors, and relationships between women and men. It is reinforced through behavioral rituals, namely the key practice of praying five times a day. Until fairly recently, psychology has suffered from a blindspot by ignoring religion as a central belief system shaping people’s worldviews (Ysseldek et al. 2010). References to religion or religiosity remain rare in most social psychology texts. Religion is not just an individual belief system it is also a form of culture that binds people across time and place (Cohen 2009 Cohen and Hill 2007). Religion not only offers individual psychological benefits (e.g., coping with death anxiety, creating meaning in life), but also provides solutions to social and ecological problems faced by social groups (Shariff et al. 2014). It is a system of shared beliefs, values, and norms that is transmitted across generations and places (Fiske et al. 1998). Religious culture is reinforced by customs, dress, and shared holidays. In this sense, religion is culture, and Islam (or Judaism, Hinduism, or Christianity) is as much a cultural identity as a belief system. Of course, religious customs vary from place to place, and Arab, Persian, Northern African, Asian, and North American versions of Islam differ. So, although there is an overarching Islamic culture, there are also cultures within this culture.

Supporting the idea that Islam is a culture that stretches beyond the political boundaries of nations, most Muslims feel a strong shared identity with fellow Muslims around the globe. For instance, Muslims strongly endorse the belief that they belong to a larger Islamic nation (Abu-Raiya et al. 2008), a sense of shared identity that may distinguish it from some other religious groups.


Predominantly Islamic cultures are nearly all characterized by high degrees of collectivism. Although the collectivism of the Islamic world does not distinguish it from other collectivist cultures, it is a central feature of most all Muslim societies. Whereas collectivism in some cultures is directed broadly at the state or ethnic group, Islamic collectivism appears more narrowly focused on the family, both immediate and extended (Abu-Lughod 1999). This can take the form of a sort of tribalism, as exemplified in Bedouin society (Abu-Lughod 1999). In Islamic cultures, important decisions are almost always considered with respect to the implications for one’s family.


Tight (in contrast to loose) cultures are formal and disciplined with many stated social norms (Pelto 1968). Members of the culture are expected to follow the rules, and there is relatively little tolerance for deviation (Gelfand 2012 Gelfand et al. 2011). Islamic cultures are tight cultures. Islam emphasizes an ethical code of conduct adduced from the Qura’n (Abu-Raiya 2013). Not surprisingly, predominantly Islamic cultures like Pakistan, Malaysia, and Turkey tend to score quite high on empirical measures of cultural tightness (Gelfand et al. 2011).


Owing to the centrality of religion in everyday life, Islamic cultures tend to be socially conservative. This emphasis on conservatism is captured in cross-cultural research on human values. For instance, Schwartz’s (1992, 2012) influential theory of basic human values contrasts a dimension of conservatism (e.g., security, tradition, conformity) with openness to change (e.g., self-direction, stimulation, hedonism). Not surprisingly, religiosity relates positively to giving priority to conformity and traditional values as well as negatively to giving priority to hedonism, self-direction, and stimulation values in studies of European Christians and Jews (Roccas and Schwartz 1997 Schwartz and Huismans 1995). Extrapolating from the individual level to the cultural level and to Muslim populations, we would expect that members of Islamic cultures will prioritize values reflecting conservatism.

Similarly, work by Inglehart and Welzel (2015) from the World Values Surveys asserts that there are two major value dimensions that order cultures around the world: Traditional versus secular-rational and survival versus self-expression values. Empirical work from the World Values Surveys (2016) project confirms Muslim societies’ social conservatism because predominantly Muslim cultures cluster in a group that is high in both traditional and survival values, in contrast to the more secular English speaking and Protestant European nations, which score high in secular-rational and self-expressive values.

Gender Differentiation and Patriarchy

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the Islamic world and the Western world (and most relevant to this special issue’s focus on women) is the status of women and relationships between the sexes. Islamic cultures are, by and large, relatively patriarchal, in which men are heads of households and women are expected to be subordinate, although the degree of patriarchy is a matter of debate and varies across Muslim societies (Moghadam 2004 Rizzo et al. 2007). Westerners, who emphasize individual freedoms, autonomy, and equality (in theory if not in practice), often have trouble with cultural notions of gender hierarchy. They see women’s subordination as oppression. In contrast, the family model of hierarchy in Islamic cultures places strong emphasis on unity and identity. The high status, powerful members of family are obliged to protect and care for the weak. It is a relationship not just of domination but also of affection and mutual concern (Abu-Lughod 1999). Inequality is thus rationalized and legitimized, but also embedded within a system of moral order. This protective paternalism is central to Glick and Fiske’s (1996) benevolent sexism construct, and it helps explain why women in Muslim societies often strongly endorse benevolent, chivalrous forms of honor (see especially, Glick et al. 2015).


Closely related to gender-based hierarchies is the concept of honor. Honor is the moral basis of this gender hierarchy (Abu-Lughod 1999), and it also reflects and reinforces collectivism by emphasizing the maintenance of strong family ties. One’s honor is based on social image or reputation it is one’s worth in one’s own eyes and the eyes of others (see Nisbett and Cohen 1996, for studies of southern U.S. honor Pitt-Rivers 1965, for studies of Mediterranean honor Rodriguez Mosquera et al. 2002 for studies of Spanish honor and Abu-Odeh 2011, for a discussion of Arab honor). Across honor cultures, having honor means being respected by others, but women and men acquire and protect honor differently (Vandello and Cohen 2003, 2008). For men, honor carries with it the responsibility to protect one’s family. Men gain honor through enforcing their will upon others (with force if necessary), but also through acts of generosity. For women, honor is focused more on avoiding actions that might bring shame to one’s self and one’s family.

Honor norms are central to most Muslim cultures, owing perhaps in part to the gender inequality justifying ideology of Islam (again, see Glick et al. 2015). However, the honor ideology is not specific to Islam. For instance, Caffaro et al. (2016) find that predominantly Christian Cameroon was the most strongly endorsing of honor-related violence of their cultural samples, even compared to Muslim Morocco.

Although my list may not be an exhaustive, together the six themes I summarized here (religiosity, collectivism, tightness, conservatism, gender hierarchy, and honor) form the basis of a recognizable and distinct Islamic culture. Future research might conceptually and empirically support, refute, or add to this list to help define the core psychological dimensions of Muslim identity.

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society

Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law (sharia) to be the official law of the land, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center. But many supporters of sharia say it should apply only to their country’s Muslim population.

Moreover, Muslims are not equally comfortable with all aspects of sharia: While most favor using religious law in family and property disputes, fewer support the application of severe punishments – such as whippings or cutting off hands – in criminal cases. The survey also shows that Muslims differ widely in how they interpret certain aspects of sharia, including whether divorce and family planning are morally acceptable.

The survey involved a total of more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in 80-plus languages. It covered Muslims in 39 countries, which are divided into six regions in this report – Southern and Eastern Europe (Russia and the Balkans), Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Regional Differences

Attitudes toward Islamic law vary significantly by region. Support for making sharia the law of the land is highest in South Asia (median of 84%). Medians of at least six-in-ten Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa (64%), the Middle East-North Africa region (74%) and Southeast Asia (77%) also favor enshrining sharia as official law. But in two regions, far fewer Muslims say Islamic law should be endorsed by their governments: Southern and Eastern Europe (18%) and Central Asia (12%).

Within regions, support for enshrining sharia as official law is particularly high in some countries with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. 1 But support for sharia is not limited to countries where Muslims make up a majority of the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Muslims constitute less than a fifth of the population in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique and Uganda yet in each of these countries, at least half of Muslims (52%-74%) say they want sharia to be the official law of the land.

Conversely, in some countries where Muslims make up more than 90% of the population, relatively few want their government to codify Islamic law this is the case in Tajikistan (27%), Turkey (12%) and Azerbaijan (8%).

Distinct legal and political cultures may help to explain the differing levels of support for sharia. Many of the countries surveyed in Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe share a history of separating religion and the state. The policies of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, for example, emphasized the creation of a secular government other countries in these two regions experienced decades of secularization under communist rule. By contrast, governments in many of the countries surveyed in South Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region have officially embraced Islam.

Sharia, or Islamic law, offers moral and legal guidance for nearly all aspects of life – from marriage and divorce, to inheritance and contracts, to criminal punishments. Sharia, in its broadest definition, refers to the ethical principles set down in Islam’s holy book (the Quran) and examples of actions by the Prophet Muhammad (sunna). The Islamic jurisprudence that comes out of the human exercise of codifying and interpreting these principles is known as fiqh. Muslim scholars and jurists continue to debate the boundary between sharia and fiqh as well as other aspects of Islamic law.

Existing Legal Frameworks

Indeed, the survey finds that support for making sharia the law of the land is often higher in countries where the constitution or basic laws already favor Islam over other religions. 2 Majorities in such countries say sharia should be enshrined as official law, including at least nine-in-ten Muslims in Afghanistan (99%) and Iraq (91%). By comparison, in countries where Islam is not legally favored, roughly a third or fewer Muslims say sharia should be the law of the land. Support is especially low in Kazakhstan (10%) and Azerbaijan (8%). 3

The survey also finds that views about instituting sharia in the domestic-civil sphere frequently mirror a country’s existing legal system. Asked whether religious judges should decide family and property disputes, at least half of Muslims living in countries that have religious family courts answer yes. 4 By contrast, in countries where secular courts oversee family matters, fewer than half of Muslims think that family and property disputes should be within the purview of religious judges.

When comparing Muslim attitudes toward sharia as official law and its specific application in the domestic sphere, three countries are particularly instructive: Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey.

In Lebanon, Islam is not the favored religion of the state, but the major Muslim sects in the country operate their own courts overseeing family law. 5 Attitudes of Lebanese Muslims appear to mirror this political and legal structure: While roughly three-in-ten (29%) say sharia should be the official law of the land, about half (53%) say religious judges should have the power to decide family and property disputes.

Tunisia’s legal framework is, in key respects, the opposite of Lebanon’s: The Tunisian Constitution favors Islam over other religions, but religious courts, which once governed family law, were abolished in 1956. 6 Perhaps reflecting this history, more than half of Tunisian Muslims (56%) want sharia to be the official law of the land, but a minority (42%) says religious courts should oversee family and property law.

Turkey’s evolution in the early 20th century included sweeping legal reforms resulting in a secular constitution and legal framework. As part of these changes, traditional sharia courts were eliminated in the 1920s. 7 Today, only minorities of Turkish Muslims back enshrining sharia as official law (12%) or letting religious judges decide family and property disputes (14%).

Religious Commitment and Support for Sharia

The survey finds that religious devotion also shapes attitudes toward sharia. 8 In many countries, Muslims with higher levels of religious commitment are more likely to support sharia. In Russia, for example, Muslims who say they pray several times a day are 37 percentage points more likely to support making sharia official law than Muslims who say they pray less frequently. Similarly, in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Tunisia, Muslims who say they pray several times a day are at least 25 percentage points more supportive of enshrining sharia as official law than are less observant Muslims.

Age, Gender, Education and Support for Sharia

Across the countries surveyed, support for making sharia the official law of the land generally varies little by age, gender or education. In the few countries where support for Islamic law varies significantly by age, older Muslims tend to favor enshrining sharia as the law of the land more than younger Muslims do. This is particularly true in the Middle East-North Africa region, where Muslims ages 35 and older are more likely than those 18-34 to back sharia in Lebanon (+22 percentage points), Jordan (+12), Tunisia (+12) and the Palestinian territories (+10).

In only two countries are men significantly more likely than women to favor enshrining sharia as official law: Pakistan (+16 percentage points) and Russia (+9). In most countries, Muslims with a secondary degree or higher (i.e., graduates of a high school, technical institute or college) are about as likely as those with less education to support Islamic law.

Muslims Who Favor Making Sharia Official Law

When Muslims around the world say they want sharia to be the law of the land, what role do they envision for religious law in their country? First, many, but by no means all, supporters of sharia believe the law of Islam should apply only to Muslims. In addition, those who favor Islamic law tend to be most comfortable with its application to questions of family and property. 9 In some regions, fewer back the imposition of severe punishments in criminal cases, such as cutting off the hands of thieves – an area of sharia known in Arabic as hudud (see Glossary). But in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, medians of more than half back both severe criminal punishments and the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith.

Muslims who favor making sharia the law of the land generally agree that the requirements of Islam should apply only to Muslims. Across the regions where the question was asked, medians of at least 51% say sharia should apply exclusively to adherents of the Muslim faith. This view is prevalent even in regions such as South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, where there is overwhelming support for enshrining sharia as the official law of the land. (See chart in Should Sharia Apply to All Citizens? in Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia.)

At the country level, there are notable exceptions to the view that sharia should apply only to Muslims. These include Egypt, where 74% of Muslims say sharia should be the law of the land and nearly three-quarters of them (or 55% of all Egyptian Muslims) say Islamic law should apply to people of all faiths.

Sharia supporters around the world widely agree that Muslim leaders and religious judges should decide family and property disputes. The median percentage of sharia supporters who favor applying religious law in the domestic sphere is highest in Southeast Asia (84%), followed by South Asia (78%), the Middle East and North Africa (78%), and Central Asia (62%). In Southern and Eastern Europe, fewer (41%) think religious judges should oversee family and property issues. (See chart in How Should Sharia Be Applied? in Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia.)

In South Asia, support for applying religious law to family and property disputes is coupled with strong backing for severe criminal punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves (median of 81%) and the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith (76%). In the Middle East-North Africa region, medians of more than half favor strict criminal penalties (57%) and the execution of those who convert from Islam to another faith (56%).

By contrast, fewer Muslims back severe criminal punishments in Southeast Asia (median of 46%), Central Asia (38%), and Southern and Eastern Europe (36%). Even smaller medians in these same regions (between 13% and 27%) say apostates should face the death penalty for leaving Islam to join another religion. (For more details on views toward apostasy, see How Should Sharia Be Applied? in Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia.)

What is a Median?

The median is the middle number in a list of numbers sorted from highest to lowest. On many questions in this report, medians are reported for groups of countries to help readers see regional patterns.

For a region with an odd number of countries, the median on a particular question is the middle spot among the countries surveyed in that region. For regions with an even number of countries, the median is computed as the average of the two countries at the middle of the list (e.g., where six nations are shown, the median is the average of the third and fourth countries listed in the region).

Faith and Morality

Regardless of whether they support making sharia the official law of the land, Muslims around the world overwhelmingly agree that in order for a person to be moral, he or she must believe in God. Muslims across all the regions surveyed also generally agree that certain behaviors – such as suicide, homosexuality and consuming alcohol – are morally unacceptable. However, Muslims are less unified when it comes to the morality of divorce, birth control and polygamy. Even Muslims who want to enshrine sharia as the official law of the land do not always line up on the same side of these issues.

The survey asked Muslims if it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. For the majority of Muslims, the answer is a clear yes. Median percentages of roughly seven-in-ten or more in Central Asia (69%), sub-Saharan Africa (70%), South Asia (87%), the Middle East-North Africa region (91%) and Southeast Asia (94%) agree that morality begins with faith in God. In Southern and Eastern Europe, where secular traditions tend to be strongest, a median of 61% agree that being moral and having good values depend on belief in God. 10 In only two of the 38 countries where the question was asked – Albania (45%) and Kazakhstan (41%) – do fewer than half of Muslims link morality to faith in God. (The question was not asked in Afghanistan.)

Muslims around the world also share similar views about the immorality of some behaviors. For example, across the six regions surveyed, median percentages of roughly eight-in-ten or more consistently say prostitution, homosexuality and suicide are morally wrong. Medians of at least 60% also condemn sex outside marriage, drinking alcohol, abortion and euthanasia.

Moral attitudes are less uniform when it comes to questions of polygamy, divorce and family planning. In the case of polygamy, only in Southern and Eastern Europe (median of 68%) and Central Asia (62%) do most say that the practice of taking multiple wives is morally unacceptable. In the other regions surveyed, attitudes toward polygamy vary widely from country to country. For example, in the Middle East-North Africa region, the percentage of Muslims who think polygamy is morally unacceptable ranges from 6% in Jordan to 67% in Tunisia. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, as few as 5% of Muslims in Niger say plural marriage is morally wrong, compared with 59% who hold this view in Mozambique.

In sub-Saharan Africa, a median of 51% explicitly describe divorce as morally wrong. In other regions, fewer share this view, although opinions vary substantially at the country level. Many Muslims say that divorce is either not a moral issue or that the morality of ending a marriage depends on the situation. In the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, more than a quarter of Muslims in five of the six countries where the question was asked say either that divorce is not a moral issue or that it depends on the context.

Muslims also are divided when it comes to the morality of birth control. In most countries where the question was asked, there was neither a clear majority saying family planning is morally acceptable nor a clear majority saying it is morally wrong. Rather, many Muslims around the world say that a married couple’s decision to limit pregnancies either is not a moral issue or depends on the situation this includes medians of at least a quarter in Central Asia (27%), Southern and Eastern Europe (30%) and the Middle East-North Africa region (41%).

In addition, the survey finds that sharia supporters in different countries do not necessarily have the same views on the morality of divorce and family planning. For example, in Bangladesh and Lebanon, supporters of sharia are at least 11 percentage points more likely than other Muslims to say divorce is morally acceptable. But in Albania, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kosovo and Kyrgyzstan, those who want sharia to be official law are less likely than other Muslims to characterize divorce as morally acceptable. Sharia supporters in different countries also diverge in their attitudes toward family planning. In Bangladesh, Jordan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Muslims who want to enshrine sharia as the law of land are more likely to say family planning is moral, while in Kazakhstan, Russia, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, supporters of sharia are less likely to say limiting pregnancies is morally acceptable. (For more details on views toward polygamy, divorce and family planning, see Morality and Marriage in Chapter 3: Morality.)

Women’s Rights

Muslims’ attitudes toward women’s rights are mixed. In most parts of the world, Muslims say that a woman should be able to decide whether to wear a veil. Yet when it comes to private life, most Muslims say a wife should always obey her husband. There is considerable disagreement over whether a wife should be able to initiate a divorce and whether a daughter should be able to receive an inheritance equal to a son’s.

Across five of the six major regions included in the study, majorities of Muslims in most countries say a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil in public. Medians of roughly seven-in-ten or more take this view in Southern and Eastern Europe (88%), Southeast Asia (79%) and Central Asia (73%). But fewer say women should have this right in South Asia (56%) and the Middle East-North Africa region (53%). Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where a median of less than half (40%) think a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil. (For more details on views toward veiling, see Women and Veiling in Chapter 4: Women In Society.)

Although many Muslims endorse a woman’s right to choose how she appears in public, overwhelming majorities in most regions say a wife should always obey her husband. Medians of more than eight-in-ten Muslims express this view in Southeast Asia (93%), South Asia (88%), and the Middle East and North Africa (87%). Even in Central Asia, a region characterized by relatively low levels of religious observance and strong support for a woman’s right to decide whether to wear a veil, seven-in-ten Muslims agree that a wife should carry out her husband’s wishes. 11 Only in Southern and Eastern Europe do fewer than half (median of 43%) share this view.

Views on a women’s rights to divorce and inheritance vary considerably across the regions surveyed. Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe and Central Asia clearly support a wife’s right to initiate a divorce (regional medians of 86% and 70%, respectively). However, fewer in the other regions think this should be a woman’s prerogative. Similarly, medians of six-in-ten or more in three regions – Southern and Eastern Europe (69%), Southeast Asia (61%) and Central Asia (60%) – think daughters and sons should have equal inheritance rights. But far fewer agree in South Asia (46%) and the Middle East-North Africa region (25%).

As in the case of support for religious courts and making sharia official law, attitudes toward equal inheritance appear to reflect, at least in part, a society’s legal and social norms. For example, at least three-quarters of Muslims say children should be able to inherit equally, regardless of gender, in Turkey (88%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (79%) and Kosovo (76%) – all countries where laws do not require that sons should receive greater inheritance than daughters. By contrast, in Jordan (25%), Iraq (22%), Morocco (15%) and Tunisia (15%) – countries where laws specify unequal inheritance based on gender – a quarter or fewer say daughters and sons should have equal rights to their family’s wealth. (See Inheritance Rights for Women in Chapter 4: Women In Society.)

Differences in Views by Gender

Overall, the survey finds that Muslim women are often, but not always, more supportive of women’s rights. 12 For example, in about half of the 39 countries surveyed, women are more likely than men to say that a woman should decide for herself whether to wear a veil in public. Yet in the remaining countries, women are just as likely as men to say that the question of veiling should not be left to individual women. When it comes to divorce and equal inheritance, there are even fewer countries where Muslim women are significantly more supportive of women’s rights than are Muslim men.

Extremism Widely Rejected

Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.

In most countries where the question was asked, roughly three-quarters or more Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in most countries, the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies. Yet there are some countries in which substantial minorities think violence against civilians is at least sometimes justified. This view is particularly widespread among Muslims in the Palestinian territories (40%), Afghanistan (39%), Egypt (29%) and Bangladesh (26%).

The survey finds little evidence that attitudes toward violence in the name of Islam are linked to factors such as age, gender or education. Similarly, the survey finds no consistent link between support for enshrining sharia as official law and attitudes toward religiously motivated violence. In only three of the 15 countries with sufficient samples sizes for analysis – Egypt, Kosovo and Tunisia – are sharia supporters significantly more likely to say suicide bombing and other forms of violence are at least sometimes justified. In Bangladesh, sharia supporters are significantly less likely to hold this view.

In a majority of countries surveyed, at least half of Muslims say they are somewhat or very concerned about religious extremism. And on balance, more Muslims are concerned about Islamic than Christian extremist groups. In all but one of the 36 countries where the question was asked, no more than one-in-five Muslims express worries about Christian extremism, compared with 28 countries where at least that many say they are concerned about Islamic extremist groups. This includes six countries in which 40% or more of Muslims worry about Islamic extremism: Guinea Bissau (54%), Indonesia (53%), Kazakhstan (46%), Iraq (45%), Ghana (45%) and Pakistan (40%). (For more details on views toward extremism, see Concern About Religious Extremism in Chapter 2: Religion and Politics.)

Few See Tensions Over Religious Differences

Although many Muslims are concerned about Islamic extremist groups, relatively few think tensions between more and less observant Muslims pose a major problem for their country. Similarly, most do not see Sunni-Shia hostilities as a major problem. And when asked specifically about relations between Muslims and Christians, majorities in most countries see little hostility between members of the two faiths.

Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe and those in Central Asia are not as likely as those in other regions to describe tensions between more religious and less religious Muslims as a very big problem in their country (regional medians of 10% and 6%, respectively). Slightly more Muslims in South Asia (21%) and Southeast Asia (18%) see intra-faith differences as a major problem. In the Middle East and North Africa, a median of one-in-four say tensions between more and less devout Muslims is a pressing issue in their country.

Across the seven countries where the question was asked, fewer than four-in-ten Muslims consider tensions between Sunnis and Shias to be a major national problem. However, levels of concern vary considerably. At one end of the spectrum, barely any Muslims in Azerbaijan (1%) say Sunni-Shia tensions are a pressing issue in their country. By contrast, in Lebanon (38%), Pakistan (34%) and Iraq (23%) – three countries that have experienced sectarian violence – about a quarter or more view Sunni-Shia tensions as a very big problem. (For more details on Sunni-Shia tensions, see Concern About Sunni-Shia Conflict in Chapter 5: Relations Among Muslims.)

Compared with issues such as unemployment and crime, which majorities often describe as pressing issues in their country, relatively few Muslims place religious conflict among their nation’s top problems. Regional medians of one-in-five or fewer characterize such conflict as a major issue in Southern and Eastern Europe (20%) and Central Asia (12%). Somewhat larger medians describe religious tensions as a pressing problem in South Asia (35%), sub-Saharan Africa (34%) and Southeast Asia (27%). Only in the Middle East-North Africa region does a median of 50% say religiously based conflict is a major problem facing their country.

The survey asked in particular about relations between Muslims and Christians. In nearly all countries, fewer than half of Muslims say that many or most members of either religious group are hostile toward the other group. In five countries, however, more than three-in-ten Muslims describe many or most Christians as antagonistic toward Muslims: Egypt (50%), Guinea Bissau (41%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (37%), Chad (34%) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (31%). And in three countries similar percentages say many or most Muslims are hostile toward Christians: Guinea Bissau (49%), Chad (38%) and Egypt (35%). (For more details on Muslim-Christian tensions, see Views of Muslim-Christian Hostilities in Chapter 6: Interfaith Relations.)

Democracy and Religious Freedom

Most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion. At the same time, many Muslims want religious leaders to have at least some influence in political matters.

Given a choice between a leader with a strong hand or a democratic system of government, most Muslims choose democracy. Regional medians of roughly six-in-ten or more support democracy in sub-Saharan Africa (72%), Southeast Asia (64%) and Southern and Eastern Europe (58%), while slightly fewer agree in the Middle East and North Africa (55%) and Central Asia (52%). Muslims in South Asia are the most skeptical of democratic government (a median of 45% say they support democracy).

A majority of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they are “very free” to practice their religion. The only countries where fewer than half of Muslims say they are very free to practice their faith are Iraq (48%), Egypt (46%) and Uzbekistan (39%).

The survey also asked Muslims whether people of other faiths in their country are very free, somewhat free, not too free or not at all free to practice their religion a follow-up question asked Muslims whether they consider this “a good thing” or “a bad thing.” In 31 of the 38 countries where the question was asked, majorities of Muslims say people of other faiths can practice their religion very freely. (The question was not asked in Afghanistan.) And of those who share this assessment, overwhelming majorities consider it a good thing. This includes median percentages of more than nine-in-ten in South Asia (97%), Southern and Eastern Europe (95%), sub-Saharan Africa (94%), Southeast Asia (93%) and Central Asia (92%). In the Middle East-North Africa region, nearly as many (85%) share this view.

There are a few countries where 10% or more of Muslims say non-Muslims are either “not too free” or “not at all free” to practice their faith. These include Egypt (18%), Turkey (14%), Iraq (13%), Djibouti (11%), Tajikistan (11%) and the Palestinian territories (10%). Very few Muslims in these countries call this lack of religious freedom “a good thing.” Egypt is the only country in which more than one-tenth (12%) of the total Muslim population says it is a good thing that non-Muslims are not free to practice their faith.

Islam and Politics

While Muslims widely embrace democracy and religious freedom, many also want religion to play a prominent role in politics. Medians of at least six-in-ten in Southeast Asia (79%), South Asia (69%), and the Middle East and North Africa (65%) say religious leaders should have at least some influence over political matters. This includes medians of at least a quarter across these three regions who would like to see religious leaders exert a large influence on politics. Muslims in the other two regions where the question was asked are less comfortable with the merger of politics and faith. Fewer than three-in-ten Muslims in Central Asia (28%) and Southern and Eastern Europe (22%) say religious leaders should wield influence in political matters. And among these, less than one-in-ten think religion should have a large influence.

Devout Muslims tend to be more supportive of religious leaders playing a role in politics. In a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa but also in Southern and Eastern Europe, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely than those who pray less frequently to say religious leaders should have at least some influence on political matters. At a country level, this gap is especially wide in Lebanon, where Muslims who pray several times a day are nearly four times more likely than other Muslims (51% vs. 13%) to say religious leaders should play a role in politics.

Islam and Contemporary Society

Most Muslims are comfortable practicing their faith in the contemporary world. Relatively few feel there is an inherent conflict between being religiously devout and living in a modern society, and the prevailing view in most countries surveyed is that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science. However, most Muslims think Western music, movies and television pose a threat to morality in their country – even though, on a personal level, substantial percentages say they enjoy Western entertainment.

Across the six major regions included in the study, most Muslims reject the notion that there is an inherent tension between modern society and leading a religiously devout life. This view prevails in regions characterized by low levels of religious observance – Central Asia (median of 71%) and Southern and Eastern Europe (58%) – as well as in regions where most Muslims are highly observant – Southeast Asia (64%) and the Middle East and North Africa (60%). 13 Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are more divided on the compatibility of religion and modern life (median of 50%). Muslims in South Asia, meanwhile, are less likely to say modern life and religious devotion are compatible (median of 39%). (For more details, see Religion and Modernity in Chapter 7: Religion, Science and Popular Culture.)

Across the 23 countries where the question was asked, most Muslims see no inherent conflict between religion and science. This view is especially widespread in the Middle East and North Africa (median of 75%) even though, as previously noted, many Muslims in the region are highly committed to their faith. Across the other regions surveyed, medians of 50% or more concur that religion and science are compatible. The one exception is South Asia, where fewer than half (45%) share this view.

Asked specifically about the origins of humans and other living things, Muslims in Central Asia, Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East-North Africa region agree with the theory of evolution (regional medians from 54% to 58%). Fewer Muslims accept evolution in Southeast Asia (39%) and South Asia (30%). (For more details on views toward evolution, see Evolution in Chapter 7: Religion, Science and Popular Culture.)

Western Pop Culture

Western music, movies and television have become a fixture of contemporary society in many parts of the world. The survey finds that, at a personal level, many Muslims enjoy Western popular culture. This is especially true in Southern and Eastern Europe (66%), Central Asia (52%) and sub-Saharan Africa (51%), where medians of at least 50% say they like Western entertainment. Fewer in Southeast Asia (41%) and the Middle East and North Africa (38%) share this view. Favorable opinions of Western music, movies and television are even rarer in South Asia (25%).

Even though many Muslims enjoy Western pop culture, a clear majority of Muslims in most countries surveyed think that Western entertainment harms morality in their country. And it is not only Muslims who personally dislike Western music, movies and television who feel this way. In four of the six regions, medians of at least half of those who say they enjoy this type of entertainment also say Western cultural imports undermine morality: sub-Saharan Africa (65%), South Asia (59%), Southeast Asia (51%) and the Middle East-North Africa region (51%). (For more details, including Muslims’ views toward Bollywood, see Popular Culture in Chapter 7: Religion, Science and Popular Culture.)

How Do American Muslims Compare?

In 2011, the Pew Research Center conducted its second nationally representative survey of Muslims in the United States. When that survey is compared with the global survey of Muslims, some key differences emerge between U.S. Muslims and Muslims in other countries. In general, American Muslims are more at ease in the contemporary world. About six-in-ten Muslims living in the U.S. (63%) say there is no tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society, compared with a median of 54% of Muslims worldwide. American Muslims also are more likely than Muslims in other parts of the world to say that many religions can lead to eternal salvation (56% vs. global median of 18%). Additionally, U.S. Muslims are much less likely than Muslims worldwide to say that all or most of their close friends are Muslim (48% vs. global median of 95%).

Muslims in the U.S. are about as likely as Muslims in other countries to view science and religion as fully compatible. In the U.S., 59% of Muslims say there generally is not a conflict between science and religion, compared with a median of 54% globally among Muslims. However, American Muslims are somewhat less likely to believe in evolution than are Muslims in other parts of the world (45% vs. global median of 53%). Indeed, when it comes to evolution, U.S. Muslims are closer to U.S. Christians (46% of whom say they believe in evolution) than they are to fellow Muslims elsewhere in the world.

American Muslims are even more likely than Muslims in other countries to firmly reject violence in the name of Islam. In the U.S., about eight-in-ten Muslims (81%) say that suicide bombing and similar acts targeting civilians are never justified. Across the globe, a median of roughly seven-in-ten Muslims (72%) agrees. (For more details on how U.S. Muslims compare with Muslims worldwide, see Appendix A: U.S. Muslims — Views on Religion and Society in a Global Context.)

About the Report

These and other findings are discussed in more detail in the remainder of this report, which is divided into seven chapters:

This report also includes an appendix with comparable results from past Pew Research Center surveys of Muslims in the United States. A glossary of key terms can be found here. The survey questionnaire and a topline with full results are available as a PDF. The online version of the report also includes an infographic. This report covers attitudes and views on a variety of social and political questions. A previous Pew Research report, released in August 2012, addressed religious affiliation, beliefs and practices among Muslims.

This report includes data on every nation with a Muslim population of more than 10 million except Algeria, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Together, the 39 countries and territories included in the survey are home to about two-thirds of all Muslims in the world.

The surveys that are the basis for this report were conducted across multiple years. Fifteen sub-Saharan countries with substantial Muslim populations were surveyed in 2008-2009 as part of a larger project that examined religion in that region. The methods employed in those countries – as well as some of the findings – are detailed in the Pew Research Center’s 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” An additional 24 countries and territories were surveyed in 2011-2012. In 21 of these countries, Muslims make up a majority of the population. In these cases, nationally representative samples of at least 1,000 respondents were fielded. The number of self-identified Muslims interviewed in these countries ranged from 551 in Lebanon to 1,918 in Bangladesh. In Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Muslims are a minority, oversamples were employed to ensure adequate representation of Muslims in both cases, at least 1,000 Muslims were interviewed. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the survey was limited to the country’s five southern provinces, each with substantial Muslim populations more than 1,000 interviews with Muslims were conducted across these provinces. Appendix C provides greater detail on the 2011-2012 survey’s methodology.

1 The populations of both Afghanistan and Iraq are at least 99% Muslim. Estimates for the religious composition of countries in this report are from the Pew Research Center’s December 2012 report “The Global Religious Landscape.” (return to text)

2 The designation “officially favored religion” is based on the Pew Research Center’s September 2012 report “Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion.” See 2010 data for question in Government Restrictions Index on whether a country’s constitution or basic law recognizes a favored religion (GRI.Q.20.1). For analysis of support for sharia among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, see the Pew Research Center’s April 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.”(return to text)

3 Whether a country’s legal system shapes, or is shaped by, public opinion is beyond the scope of this study. This report is not asserting a causal relationship in either direction. (return to text)

4 Information on countries that have religious family courts is from Stahnke, Tad and Robert C. Blitt. 2005. “The Religion-State Relationship and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim Countries.” Georgetown Journal of International Law, volume 36, issue 4 Emory Law School’s Islamic Family Law project and University of Richmond’s Constitution Finder. (return to text)

5 See National Reconciliation Charter of Lebanon. 1989. Articles 1b and1j and Abiad, Nisrine. 2008. “Sharia, Muslim States and International Human Rights Treaty Obligations: A Comparative Study.” British Institute of International and Comparative Law, page 56. (return to text)

6 See Constitution of Tunisia. 1959. Article 1 and Abiad, Nisrine. 2008. “Sharia, Muslim States and International Human Rights Treaty Obligations: A Comparative Study.” British Institute of International and Comparative Law, page 146. (return to text)

7 See Turkish Civil Code. 1926 Constitution of the Republic of Turkey. 1982. Part 3, Chapter 3, “Judiciary” and Kocak, Mustafa. 2010. “Islam and National Law in Turkey.” In Otto, Jan Michiel, editor. “Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present.” Leiden University Press, pages 231-272.(return to text)

8 For analysis of support for sharia among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, see the Pew Research Center’s April 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” (return to text)

9 For analysis of support for sharia among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, see the Pew Research Center’s April 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” (return to text)

10 For analysis of religious observance among Muslims around the world, see the Pew Research Center’s August 2012 report “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” (return to text)

11 For background on levels of religious observance in the countries surveyed, see the Pew Research Center’s August 2012 report “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” (return to text)

12 For analysis of support for women’s rights among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa see the Pew Research Center’s April 2010 report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” (return to text)

13 For background on levels of religious observance in the countries surveyed, see the Pew Research Center’s August 2012 report “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” (return to text)

Social Power and Parochial Altruism

Social identity salience is one mechanism and theoretical perspective that easily adapts itself to terrorism studies. However, changing social identity salience and reducing perceptions of threat on part of the terrorist group or potential terrorist group may require the use of social power. As in the case of the targets of terrorism, this requires action on part of the leadership. Those with social power have the greatest ability to make changes to social identity salience. Furthermore, social power can be used to alter the perceived notion of parochial altruism.

Altruism is often defined in relation to terrorism as extreme altruism or parochial altruism (Choi & Bowles, 2007), and usually manifests itself in the form of suicide attacks or martyrdom. This method of terrorism is new, only becoming prominent during the current wave of religious terrorism (Rapoport, 2002). Parochialism—hostility to out-group members, and altruism—sacrificing benefits to the self for the in-group, combine to be extremely devastating, and partially explains why religious terrorist attacks have casualty rates more than four times any other type of terrorism (Piazza, 2009). The parochial altruism hypothesis that religious terrorists engage in violence out of moral obligations to the in-group, rather than cost-benefit analysis, has empirical support. Palestinian adults with ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad rate delaying a planned suicide attack as more acceptable if it is for the purpose of looking after an ill family member than for the purpose of protecting the family from death by retaliation (Ginges & Atran, 2009). Additionally, the same participants overwhelmingly rated it unacceptable to ask for compensation following martyrdom (Ginges & Atran, 2009). This appears to support the notion that suicide attacks are carried out for reasons of moral obligation rather than for instrumental, rational reasons.

Being motivated by moral reasoning over instrumental reasoning may be further supported by evidence suggesting that terrorism is generally not productive as measured by terrorist organizations achieving their goals (Abrahms, 2006). Parochial altruism does not appear to be about increasing success rates toward political goals, but rather about upholding perceived moral obligations. If moral obligations, rather than instrumental reasoning, primarily dictate religious terrorism then social power can be used to intervene.

Parochial altruism needs to be redefined by the power structure in societies where terrorism is nurtured. Power is succinctly defined as potential control over others outcomes (Fiske & Berdahl, 2007), but power can take a number of different forms. French and Raven (1959) described five bases of power : reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power, and expert power. Reward power is based upon the perception that an “other” can mediate rewards. For example, religious leaders have the power to define and mediate access to spiritual realms. The Catholic Church historically used its control of the afterlife to encourage payments to the Church through the guise of indulgences (i.e., selling access to heaven). Similarly, the power structure of Islam controls mediation between Allah and the spiritual world, defining what actions inherit access to the spiritual world. Similar to reward power is coercive power, or the ability to mediate punishments. In the same manner that religious leaders can mediate access to spiritual rewards, they can mediate avoidance of spiritual punishments.

Legitimate power refers to the perception that an “other” has the right to prescribe behavior. This can be wielded indirectly. For instance, believers may perceive Allah to have divine right to dictate behavior and Islamic clerics have authority to prescribe behavior on Allah’s behalf. Referent power simply exists through a shared identification, in this case Islam. And finally, expert power describes a perception that one has special knowledge or insight. For religion, power often comes in the form of control of the afterlife. When forms of power are combined with spiritual rewards and punishments, power can become intensified. With social power comes social responsibility, and the power structure of Islam needs to enforce its religious power (e.g., spiritual rewards for martyrdom) to downplay terrorism as an act of parochial altruism or martyrdom. Perhaps, this is easier described theoretically than in practice, but it leaves open the role of the Muslim world to condemn altruistic parochialism in the form of suicide terrorism as an action deserving of spiritual reward. This can theoretically be accomplished in two ways: altering the acceptability of behavior through the power holders or through re-distributed power. How might power be re-distributed in the religious community?

One notion stems from the evidence that most religious terrorists connected to the Jihad movement or to Al-Qaeda networks are not particularly knowledgeable about Islam, nor do they generally come from religious backgrounds (Bakker, 2006 Stern, 2010). In fact, some samples estimate that only about half are from religious backgrounds (Bakker, 2006). This suggests a divergent power between potential terrorists and the religious power holders, in which expert and legitimate power are comparatively enhanced by the lack of knowledge of potential terrorists, and thus a need to rely on interpretations provided by the power holders. Terrorism and counter-terrorism research may find that French and Raven’s taxonomy of power lends itself to identifying potential terrorists by studying what types of people are susceptible to those forms of power most intimately tied to the supernatural. Bertram Raven suggests that levels of complexity in moral reasoning may be one such useful approach (Raven, 1999).


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