Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

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The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. Aaron

    "Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works"? Really...when do they plan to start? Whenever there is a major disaster in the world (even in Muslim nations, it is the west and Pacific rim who respond. If their only concept of doing good works sending their children to slaughter innocent people? That part of the world is backwards they are where Europe was in the 1300's intellectually and spiritually. They need a reformation and an enlightenment!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Somaia Abdelrahim

      Aaron: Do you know any Muslim Americans. Our family is the example of a good American citizen and we are Muslims. Please open you mind and visit a Muslim family. They have the same dreams and aspirations for their families. Your negative comments does not serve a good purpose.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  2. CD Bell

    They are weak minded.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  3. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Santa Claus... The Easter Bunny... The Devil.... God....

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  4. TampaBay

    Duh! They are religious because they are forced to be, or their heads roll and their families are killed. Eve us non-muslims are called non-believer infidels with a target on our heads to become believers. The difference is they can kiss my booty before they cut my head off for being an infidel.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Yous

      are you kidding me?? so christians in egypt, lebanon, syria, and in all other countries with muslim majority are all beheaded for being christian. get your facts straight

      December 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Jack B

      To Yous: No they're not ALL beheaded, that's stupid! But fatal attacks on Christians, for example in Nigeria and recently in Egypt, are certainly on the increase! Refute THAT! And show me where in Western democracies members of Muslim minorities are being killed, although I will admit that public opinion is turning against them. One reason is that many Muslims are demanding special privileges, among other things the introduction of sharia law, which is diametrically opposed to the principles of liberal democracy!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  5. Nabeel

    No surprise here in the comments section. "Islam is evil, Muslims are idiots, bla bla bla." Seriously you Islam haters don't miss a beat

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Jack B

      Nabeel, I do not 'hate' Muslims! In fact, I have some very good friends who are Muslim. I have had serious discussions with them, and they all agree that I know more about Islam than they do, because I have studied it! And I don't even 'hate' Islam, even though it is the most dangerous politico-religious ideology around today, precisely because it is considered a 'sacred religion' by so many. It is often called Islamofascism for good reasons. It was not an accident that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hussein, spent most of WWII in Berlin as Hitler's guest, spouting Nazi propaganda on the radio!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  6. Juneyt

    America needs to learn more about Islam without closed minds.As an edicated muslim it shocks and awsa me to see the ignorance about Islam. Lets take this survey as an example- Saudi Arabia was taken as an example of the Islam . This is like taking KKK as the representer of the christianity.
    Economically, Islam is seen as the only alternative to Capitalism. Greed has taken over capitalism.I do not need to tell you that look around. After seeingNcapitalism's devastating affect on the poor, Islamic societies turn to Islam as a form of alternative economic system. Why do you think that rise in Islam as ideaology peaked after the communism collapsed?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Stevelb1

      We know everything we need to know. We all watch the TV on 9/11. Enough said.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  7. joey

    christians , jews, muslims, all the children of abraham, hating and killing each other, perfect

    December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  8. Jack B

    We need to move these Muslims out of the 7th century! I have studied the Koran, many passages from the Hadith, an extensive amount of critical literature and do know what I am talking about when I say that the Koran is a pastiche based on Judaic, Zoroastrian and Christian sources, heavily sprinkled with 7th century Artabic social customs. The Koran was not completed until 60 years after Mohammad's death in 632. And few people know that Ol' Mo was, among other things, a bandit and a killer, according to Muslim sources.

    Anyone who wants to know what Islam is all about should at the very least read Ibn Warraq's scholarly book 'Why I Am Not A Muslim', published by Prometheus Books, 2003

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Nabeel

      That's not a scholarly book, not every biased polemicist with an opinion is called a schoalr you know. And news flash: it doesn't matter if you've studied the quran hadith etc, because most muslims only pick and choose what they want to follow anyway (even if they won't admit it).

      December 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Yous

      You obviously failed in your studies. If we lived by the prophets' examples, we all woud be living in peace now.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Jack B

      To Nabeel: Agreed, he is a polemicist, for good reason, but a scholarly one. If you deny that, you either don't understand what scholarship is or you haven't read the book. And you may know (or maybe not) that 'Ibn Warraq' is a pseudonym! You know why? Because he's of course in danger of having his head cut off by one of your Muslim buddies! Just as Salman Rushdie had to live in seclusion for years because of a fatwa against him. Deny THAT! And which anti-Christian polemicist has to live in fear for his life, pray tell? (And don't tell me about the Inquisition – I am talking about the PRESENT!)

      December 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Jack B

      To Yous: I don't know why I even bother to respond to your rather stupid comment, but I have nothing better to do at the moment! I can assure you that I have not failed in my studies, which is why I know that when Muslims talk of 'Peace' they mean ISLAMIC Peace. And under Islamic Peace all non-Muslims are infidels, kafirs and, at best dhimmis, i.e. second-class citizens. And, just to be clear on this, I have no religious axe to grind. I am an atheist, but I vastly prefer Judaism or Christianity over the supremacist concoction dreamed up by a 7th century bandit and his followers...

      December 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  9. anna

    Muslims are the most peaceful people in the world. Thats why they have been the easiest to suppress. I'm surprised nobody talks about how almost all the muslim countries were occupied by European powers for about 300 years. Middle east was occupied by the Italians, French and the British. Indonesia and Malaysia by the Dutch. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh by the British. Infact the industrial revolution in the west was fueled by the cheap/free raw materials that was taken by force from the enslaved nations. It has hardly been 50/60 years that these countries have been given independence and even then they have been ruled by elites who are handpicked by the former western powers.

    I wonder why this great injustice done to the muslims is never talked about in the media or in the history books?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Jack B

      You're kidding, aren't you? If you're serious, you should engage in some serious study of history!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  10. Stevelb1

    Its amazing how little Muslims have contributed to the world. Other than finding oil beneath their feet, what have they done to better life for anyone? No great scientists, no great poets, musicians, inventors or intellectual thinkers. Their countries are in shambles. Even the ones with oil. This is a religion to be feared and rejected by the West. They have proven time and again to be the cancer of humanity.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      I agree with you, but let us still love them (the Arabs, the Turks, etc.). Maybe one day they will convert to Christianity.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Yous

      Actualy, maybe do some research regarding the Isamic Golden Ages (c.750 CE – c.1258 CE). When Musims were innovating and excelling in engineering, science, arts...etc. christians were still living like cave men. Much of their innovations forms the basis for our modern sciences incuding algebra, numbers, medicine, astronomy, chemistry ... etc. The reason for the decline came after the mongols, crusaders invasions and the destruction of much of the Muslim's wealth. Get educated buddy before you start making judgments and accusations.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Stevelb1

      Really? Thats all you got? The golden age from 1000 years ago? Who cares!?!?!?!?!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Yous

      that's one example offcourse that proves your claim invalid. Maybe do some more research about Muslims in Spain, the Ottomans and their achievements ... etc. How do you expect Muslims nowadays to innovate when they are constantly being oppressed by the West or leaders hired by the West, and that includes Saudin Arabia

      December 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  11. Rainer Braendlein

    "Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence."


    No, the recruiters to radical causes act on behalf of the historical Muhammad. They exactly fulfill Muhammad's will, according to the Koran.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  12. joey

    herd mentality , funny

    December 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  13. Khadijah

    Actually Islam is the largest coherent religion in the world. In christianity, in many denominations, they think that their denomination is the only right one, and they say that other christian denominations are not even christian.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Michele

      That is true. Many people who claim to be Christian, or are considered Christian are not. They are simply lumped into that category only because they are not anything else. They may have attended church as a child, but that certainly does not make them Christian. Unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and make Him Lord of your life, you are not a Christian (follower of Christ). Just because you are white and born in America your default religion is not Christian. But because that is what people think, these polls are very inaccurate. If you asked these questions of true Christians, the answers would be very different.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Alin

      In fact, you are not correct Ms. Khadijah!
      In Islam, you have different sects and denominations such as AHMDIYYA, SHI'S, SUFISM, and SUNNI. In Shi's sect Muslim believe in 13 Imams, in Sunni sect Muslim believe in 9 Imams. See my dear , you are trying to misinform people. Then, there are mullahs that come up with their own twist and their own groupies. Each believe different version on Islam and what Islam should be or is..... Muslims are still in turmoil with in themselves (Shi's and Sunnis). They still are in war with each other. As we have seen throughout the history the wars and conflicts that Sunnis and Shi's have been with each other, and many lives that have been destroyed! I know this because I was born and raised in Middle East!
      I hope everyone will pick couple of books and read them! Do not depend on theses source of information because many will try to misguide and misinform you!
      After All we are all humans and we are the same no matter what religion we believe in. We all want the same thing in life (HAPPINESS)!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Jennifer Bell

      I agree with your observation, and I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination that believed we sinned if we danced or went to a movie theater. This article was written to divide Muslims and Christians further! There is no other point to it. Just as the different Muslim sects say other sects are less faithful than themselves, there are plenty of Christians who believe the same.

      However, the article says, "Muslims believe 'Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet,' says Husain, whose book 'The Islamist' chronicles his experiences with radicals. 'Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets'."

      The Bible says, and I firmly believe, that Jesus IS God. Jesus was not a prophet. There is no prophet that will trump God/Jesus/Holy Spirit.

      That said, I still respect and love my Muslim friends. We can disagree without disrespecting.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  14. Yous

    I suggest that everyone get their facts straight and maybe do some research, read the qur'an, the sira (life and examples of the prophet Muhammad pbuh) before they start judging and accusing the religion. It seems as though we're all becoming slaves to what few you people in the media have to say. I've seen and heard of plenty of christians convert to Islam after they get educated in what true Islam is. If you don't believe me, try and get educated yourself in what the religion is. I'm not surprised in these statistics because frankly, Islam is the only religion that actually makes sense.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Gene

      The radical muslims are the ones that really hurt and misrepresent the religion. They kill, maim, and torture in the name of Allah. They chant "God is great." If their version of God is so great, wouldn't he be able to administer his own punishment to the 'infidels'? Why do they think that Allah needs someone to strap on a bomb and murder numerous people? If he is the 'all powerful God' that they claim he, shouldn't Allah have power to administer punishment without assistance? The sad thing is that the moderate muslim clerics are too spineless to speak out against the murderers amongst them..

      December 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • GMAN

      Does it make sense that in countries with muslim majorities other religions are either not tolerated ot the people persecuted for alternate beliefs. The muslim world needs to have a civil war to figure out how they wish to proceed in the future. Do they wish to engage the rest of the world in a civilized fashion or be at constant conflict because of their religion tells them to either kill or convert non-muslims. Get out of the 12th century and join the rest of the world or live in tyranny and oppression.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Yous

      few radicals should not represent the religion, just like kkk and the nazis do not represent christianity. Islam calls for protection of all people and religions. This was demonstrated by the prophet's protection the the jews in Madina until they decided to fight him. A muslim that kills an innocent life is not a muslim and will be punished by God.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  15. EasternRomanEmpire

    We need to study why and how Islam has captured 1/4th of the world's population. We need to understand its history (its past), its teachings (its present) and who controls its direction (its future). Has there ever been an attempt to do this by the West? Only this way can the West make an intelligent assessment of where we go from there.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  16. settino

    amazing how many people believe in such cr@p, no matter what religion! Bizarre!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Sabina

      I think they believe mostly out of fear for their lives!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  17. peick

    OK, so the article makes the presupposition that there can't be only one way to salvation. Whether or not people disagree, has this really been demonstrated? In our age of skepticism, how would you even prove such a thing. So you are left with only the faith claims of whatever faith you are examining.

    Asking the man on the street whether his faith is the only way is not a sure-fire way to get an accurate answer. Many people just hang out in churches (and synagogues and mosques, I'd imagine) and don't go that deep. So are they the right population sample to ask?

    One idea that crossed my mind is that poor people tend to stake more of their hope on an eternal future, which makes a lot of sense. The rich have what they want now. So are more muslims or christians poor? I'm not sure, but it seems like there are a lot of poor muslim countries and a lot of rich christian ones.

    Another thought I had is that if the christians are right, then their enemy has no trouble letting people be strong in another faith because that faith is leading them to destruction anyway, so why try to shake them out of it. But if christians have the truth, then by all means do everything you can to dissuade them from practicing it or thinking it's the only way.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  18. Coronaboy

    Although I do not much believe in organized religion, it is nice to know that others who do are fervent about their beliefs. With respect to Islam, I just wish they would openly condemn their radical members and otherwise put them down or use the Catholic method of public excommunication. These radicals, many are terrorists, are not Muslim, just terrorists and they need to go.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  19. Hercules0913

    They'd better be religious otherwise they'll get popped!!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  20. zisee

    more religious my --,

    December 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.