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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg November 5, 2014

Ben Shapiro says a majority of Muslims are radicals

The rise of the Islamic State group and its strategic use of grisly beheadings has stirred a heated debate in this country about the nature of Islam. Some critics say core Muslim beliefs invite violence. Defenders of religious tolerance say extremists represent only a tiny minority of Muslims.

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro jumped in to say the nature of Islam is irrelevant. More important, according to Shapiro, is what its followers believe, "because that’s what they act upon." Through this lens, Shapiro painted a disturbing picture of the religious wellspring for people who fly planes into towers and behead their prisoners. Shapiro is an editor-at-large with the conservative website and cofounded a conservative media analysis group, TruthRevolt.

In a video, Shapiro blended survey data and population statistics for 15 countries. A good example of his thesis about Islam is in the way he talked about Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

"It’s got almost 205 million Muslims," Shapiro said. "According to one 2009 poll, it showed almost 50 percent of Indonesians support strict Sharia law, not just in Indonesia but in a lot of countries. And 70 percent blame the United States, Israel or somebody else for 9/11. You make that calculation, it’s about 143 million people who are radicalized. You scared yet? We’re just getting started."

To get to 143 million "radicalized" Muslims, Shapiro took the 70 percent of Indonesia’s Muslims who blamed someone other than al-Qaida for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Shapiro then made similar extrapolations using polling data for a number of other countries, often measuring support for Sharia law -- codes of behavior in Islam. Then Shapiro summed up and applied the percentage of "radicalized Muslims" from the 15 nations to a number of other Muslim-majority countries and, with 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, reached a shocking conclusion.

"We’re above 800 million Muslims radicalized, more than half the Muslims on Earth," Shapiro said. "That’s not a minority. That’s now a majority."

Shapiro spoke with great self-assurance, but as we looked at his claim that most Muslims are radicals, we were left scratching our heads. In the first place, Shapiro consistently used the highest percentages available in the surveys to maximize the number of Muslims he could tag with the "radical" label. Secondly, he used a broad definition of radical. To choose one main example, there are many varieties of how people interpret Sharia law and support for it says little about a person’s specific beliefs.

Other numbers tell a different story

Shapiro cited the work of the Pew Research Center in some of his analysis and much of our work relies on the same source. We tried to reach Shapiro and were unsuccessful.

In about half of the countries he assessed, Shapiro focused on support for Sharia law. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "Sharia guides all aspects of Muslim life, including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings." It is a moral code that covers marriage, crime and business. Different branches of Islam use different versions of the law. Some elements are widely accepted, such as the immorality of fraud. But for countries and sects that follow the harshest versions in which thieves have their hands cut off and unfaithful women are stoned to death, the opposition from the West, and parts of the Muslim world as well, is strong and visceral.

For Shapiro, support for any form of Sharia law means one thing -- the believer is a radical. Accordingly, Shapiro looks at a place like Pakistan and says that 76 percent of Muslims want Sharia law in all Muslim countries. Pakistan has 179 million Muslims, therefore, "that is another 135.4 million radicals."

But looking at a 2013 Pew report on Muslims, we found that the picture is more complicated. Pew reported that 84 percent of Pakistani Muslims wanted Sharia law, but of those, nearly two-thirds said it should only apply to Muslims. Run those numbers through and you get about 54 million Muslims who think all Pakistanis should be subject to Sharia law. That’s about 60 percent fewer than Shapiro said.

We are not saying that Pakistan has 54 million radical Muslims. Our point is that more detailed polling data changes the results a great deal.

Shapiro chose one yardstick. Other analysts could with at least as much justification choose another. The impact of which question is used becomes even clearer if we look at support for suicide bombings against civilian targets.

Shapiro said actual terrorists draw "moral, financial and religious support from those who are not terrorists themselves." Even if you believe Shapiro, it doesn’t mean that attitudes towards terrorism are irrelevant. Pew asked Muslims if they supported suicide bombings against civilians. In Pakistan, 13 percent of Muslims said such attacks in defense of Islam could often or sometimes be justified.

If that’s your definition of radicals, then Pakistan has about 23 million of them. Hardly a small number, but it’s a far cry from the 135 million Shapiro counted.

The following table shows how using reasonable alternative measures of radicalism, Shapiro’s majority can become a distinct minority. You can see how Shapiro reached his totals by watching the video.



Population (millions)

Radical total (Shapiro, millions)

Alternative pct.

Alternative total (millions)




Pew: 7% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 29% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 13% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 26% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 22% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





ICP/Charney: 47% would abolish the morality police.




Featured Fact-check


Pew: 15% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 9% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 7% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 39% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





Pew: 15% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.






Pew: 40% say suicide bombing can sometimes be justified.





No alternate used


Great Britain



Manchester Policy: 2% expressed some support for terrorism.


United States



Pew: In 2009, 8% said suicide bombings could sometimes be justified.







Percent of total






To be clear, we’re not saying there are 181 million radical Muslims. We’re simply saying by applying different but reasonable criteria to the same data, you can reach a vastly different result.

Sharia ≠ radical    

Given that Shapiro used support for Sharia law in 7 of the 15 countries as a marker for radicalism, we should note that the experts we reached urged a more cautious approach. Pew found that when you ask Muslims about specific elements in Sharia law, support shifts.

According to James Bell, director of International Survey Research at Pew, many Muslims will say they want religious judges deciding family or property disputes. But ask them about corporal punishments for criminals or the death penalty for apostates, and support drops off considerably.

"The key takeaway is that Muslims differ in what they mean by Sharia and how they want it applied," Bell said.

Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a political and policy advocacy group for Arab Americans, said most Muslims don’t think about every element of sharia.

"It indicates a degree of nominal faithfulness," Zogby said. If I say I support the law in the abstract, it doesn’t commit me to supporting various and assorted aspects."

In two countries, Shapiro focused on support for honor killings. Zogby said that as cruel as honor killings are, they are not tied to beliefs that underlie beheadings and suicide bombings. "One has nothing to do with the other," Zogby said.

Maria Sobolewska, a lecturer in quantitative methods and politics at the University of Manchester, England, studied polls in that country in the wake of the 2005 bus and subway bombings. Sobolewska found enormous variation in Muslim responses depending on small changes in the wording of questions.

"What we receive as a true picture of what Muslims think is mostly an artifact of what they get asked," Sobolewska wrote.

We should note that we found no solid estimate of the number of radical Muslims worldwide. For example, a 2014 report on jihadist terrorism from the Bipartisan Policy Center did not quantify the size of the jihadist population.

Our ruling

Shapiro said that a majority of Muslims are radicals. To make his numbers work, he had to cherry-pick certain results from public opinion surveys. Given the choice between two possible percentages, he chose the higher one. Shapiro also relied heavily on the idea that anyone who supported sharia law is a radical.

Some of the best polling work shows that Muslim beliefs are much more nuanced. Some countries where high percentages of Muslims support Sharia law show low support for suicide attacks on civilians. Large fractions of Muslims that endorse sharia law do not want it imposed on others. The meaning of Sharia law varies from sect to sect and nation to nation.

Shapiro’s definition of radical is so thin as to be practically meaningless and so too are the numbers he brings to bear.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Truth Revolt, The Myth of the Tiny Radical Muslim Minority, Oct. 15, 2014

Pew Research Center, The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, April 30, 2013

Pew Research Center, Muslim Publics Share Concerns about Extremist Groups, Sept. 10, 2013

Pew Research Center, The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, Aug. 9, 2012

Council on Foreign Relations, Sharia and Militancy, Nov. 30, 2010

Council on Foreign Relations, Islam: Governing under sharia, July 25, 2014

Manchester Policy, Can we ever estimate how many British Muslims will become Islamic extremists?, Aug. 26, 2014

International Peace Institute, Iran: Public Opinion on Foreign,  Nuclear and Domestic Issues, Dec. 8, 2010    

National Geographic, Thousands of Women Killed for Family "Honor", Feb. 12, 2002

Middle East Quarterly, Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings, Spring 2010

Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook

Friendly Atheist blog, This Video, Drawing on Pew Research Data, Claims That the "Tiny Minority" of Radical Muslims Is Actually a Majority, Oct. 25, 2014

Social Science Research Council, Muslim and American Public Opinion Survey

Pew Research Center, Muslim Publics Share Concerns about Extremist Groups, Sept. 10, 2013

Baptist Press, 'The Islamic spectrum': from radical to moderate, Oct. 13, 2014

Bipartisan Policy Center, Jihadist Terrorism and Other  Unconventional Threats, September, 2014

Email interview, James Bell, director, International Survey Research, Pew Research Center, Nov. 3, 2014

Interview, James Zogby, president, Arab American Institute, Oct. 31, 2014


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