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Democratic skepticism and support for terrorism in the Palestinian Territories


Research has found that, among other factors, skepticism about democracy and its suitability as a form of government helps to drive public support for violent extremism in the Muslim World. According to scholars, Muslim skeptics of democracy resent it as the product of Western political and cultural intrusion and reflexively support violent extremism as an expression of cultural resistance. Using public opinion data on support for various forms of terrorism among survey respondents in the Palestinian Territories, I find evidence for a more complex explanation. Respondents that support terrorism are indeed more likely to be skeptical of democracy because they regard it to be incompatible with Islam. However, terrorism supporters also reject democratic rule because they associate it with poor economic performance. The results suggest that democratic skepticism is associated with support for terrorism in Muslim societies, but point to both religious-cultural and socioeconomic factors as important components of the relationship.

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  1. It is important to note that skepticism about democratic rule is not the norm in the Muslim world. In a broad, multi-country survey, Esposito and Mogahed (2007) indicate that a majority of Muslims have positive attitudes toward democracy. Rowley and Smith (2009) find the same outcome using World Values Survey data. As discussed in more detail below, I also find democratic skepticism to be relatively rare in the survey sample used for the present analysis.

  2. Frequently, individuals’ economic statuses are not predictors of attitudes toward the economy. For example, in the survey data used for this study, Arab respondents with lower incomes, more unemployment or less educational achievement generally are not more likely to assess the national economy negatively.

  3. For example, the US Coalition Provisional Authority issued a binding order to completely de-nationalize the Iraqi oil industry. However, that plan was met with stiff resistance from Iraqi politicians and labor unions and ultimately was derailed by Iraq’s poor security environment in the mid-2000s. See Klein (2004) for a discussion of economic reforms undertaken by the US Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and its impact on the Iraqi insurgency.

  4. Kuran (1995) highlights several distinctive elements of traditional Islamic economic practices and features of Muslim societies that are at odds with modern liberal economic institutions: the prohibition of interest; Quranically proscribed wealth redistribution through the zakat, or religious tax; the mandate that economic policies be squared with Islamic mores; the underdevelopment of the concept of the corporation; and the dominance over economy and society of traditional Islamic endowments or waqfs. Islamist political actors frequently view liberal economic reform policies as incompatible with these traditional features of Islamic economic organization.

  5. For a critical discussion of the rentier state explanation for the durability of authoritarianism, see Ulfelder (2007).

  6. Both natural resource revenues and foreign aid provide substantial income directly to the rentier state and may displace public taxation as the dominant revenue source. The revenues from both can, and are, used by rentier states to subsidize their publics, forge clientelistic relationships with key civil society actors and co-opt or mollify domestic political dissenters. Examples of Middle Eastern states that rely primarily on petroleum rents to fund rentier authoritarianism include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. By contrast, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority rely primarily on foreign aid.

  7. Wittes (2016, 2008) describes three pillars on which authoritarian rule has rested in the Arab World. Those pillars, state coercion, official state ideology, and state clientelism, forged a politico-social contract whereby citizens consented to authoritarianism in exchange for government-provided economic and social goods.

  8. Jamal (2012) offers a good example that highlights this phenomenon. In Jordan, given favorable economic opportunities in exchange for political loyalty, Bedouin tribal groups have emerged as strong opponents of political and economic reform programs pursued by King Abdullah: they view reforms as challenging the traditional political and economic patronage system that undergirds their political relationship with the Jordanian monarchy.

  9. Respondents to the survey used in this study exhibit a similar pattern. “Good” governance is associated closely with producing favorable economic outcomes.

  10. Data files and codebooks for the various waves of the Arab Barometer can be found online at: Data downloaded on October 30, 2017.

  11. The sampling strategy used for the AB 1 and AB 4 involved dividing the West Bank and Gaza into stratified clusters and then randomly sampling a set of those clusters for interviews. All interviews were conducted in Arabic and for the AB 4 the responses were weighted for probability of selection. The interviews also were weighted by age and gender post-stratification. Further details on the sampling and fielding techniques are described in the AB 1 and AB 4 codebooks.

  12. This is consistent with Crenshaw’s (1981) argument that terrorists and terrorist groups often are fringe, marginal actors that lack widespread popularity within the societies in which they operate.

  13. As a check, I run all estimations using the full sample of respondents from all countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer in AB 1 and AB 4. Those runs produce the same results as found in the main models. However, when the estimations are disaggregated by country, my main findings hold only for Palestinian respondents, suggesting that the results produced in the full sample of Arab countries likely are driven by the Palestinian respondents.

  14. Question 605, AB 1. Howard (2013) uses this same question in constructing one of her dependent variables in a study of state failure and terrorism in Arab countries.

  15. Question 828, AB 4.

  16. Question 830, AB 4.

  17. Question 2451, AB 1.

  18. Question 516a, AB 4.

  19. These questions are asked of the entire sample, not just respondents who are not supportive of democracy.

  20. Question 5041, AB 1 and question 6071, AB 4.

  21. Question 2321, AB 1 and question 5161, AB 4.

  22. Question 2322, AB 1 and question 5162, AB 4.

  23. Question 2323, AB 1 and question 5163, AB 4.

  24. Question 716, AB 1.

  25. Question 1015, AB 4.

  26. Question 704, AB 1; question 1005, AB 4.

  27. Question 709, AB 1; question 1010, AB 4.

  28. Question 707, AB 1, note this is the “age category” of the respondent; question 1001, AB 4.

  29. Question 703, AB 1; question 1003, AB 4.

  30. Question 714a, AB 1; question 609, AB 4.

  31. Question 608, AB 1; question 708, AB 4.

  32. Question 604, AB 1.

  33. Question 713, AB 4.

  34. Question 201, AB 1; coded 1 for any expression of mistrust in questions 2011-2013, AB 4.

  35. Question 4022, AB 1; question 5184, AB 4.

  36. Residence in Gaza correlates with agreement with ISIS goals (r = 0.262) and support for ISIS violence (r = 0.245). Both correlations are different from zero at the 1% level of significance.

  37. See Appendix Table 7. Note that a variable indicating residence in Gaza versus the West Bank is included in the AB 4 survey, but not in the AB 1 survey.

  38. I operationalize religious tolerance using a question that asks survey respondents whether they would like having people from a different religion as neighbors (question 6021 in AB 4). This is a standard method of determining religious tolerance in survey research. Only AB 4 includes responses to that question.

  39. See Appendix Table 8.

  40. Calculating the marginal effects requires holding the value of the dependent variable constant at its third ordinal level of “agree” or “support.” Similar patterns are produced when the value of the dependent variable is held at its fourth and highest ordinal level: “strongly agree” or “strongly support.” The detailed results are available from the author.

  41. There are some notable exceptions. For example, Basuchoudhary and Shughart (2010) find economic freedoms to reduce the frequency of transnational terrorist attacks originating in countries with ethnic tensions.


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Correspondence to James A. Piazza.



See Tables 7 and 8.

Table 7 Analysis including control for respondents residing in Gaza Strip
Table 8 Analysis including control for religious intolerance

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Piazza, J.A. Democratic skepticism and support for terrorism in the Palestinian Territories. Public Choice 178, 417–443 (2019).

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  • Terrorism
  • Democracy
  • Public opinion
  • Palestine
  • Economic performance

JEL Classification

  • D74
  • F52