America's Image Problems

America’s image in the Muslim world has been in freefall for years. But just how bad is it?

Everyone knows that the U.S. image in the Muslim world has taken a turn for the worse lately. But just how bad have things gotten? At an event sponsored by The National Interest on Tuesday, two public-opinion experts at the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike, discussed the results of a forty-seven-country survey they conducted on the subject. Justine A. Rosenthal, executive editor of The National Interest, served as moderator.

Kohut started his remarks with a blunt assessment of the situation: America's image in the Muslim world is "abysmal" and anti-Americanism there is deeper there than anywhere else. There's "no Muslim support" for the war on terror and a "broad consensus" that the United States acts unilaterally and without regard for others. On top of this, the war in Iraq is widely "seen as an effort to control Middle East oil" and "dominate the world."

"Fear and loathing" for the United States among Muslims is not just related to military matters though. Kohut added that "Muslims blame the West for their economic problems" and fault it for a perceived disrespect toward Islam. Even in Turkey, a U.S. ally often identified as one of the most "moderate" Muslim countries, only 9 percent of people have a favorable view of America.

Yet there's also some good news to report-anti-Americanism is not "intractable." For one thing, Muslims are turning against terrorism as it begins to hit closer to home. 57 percent of Jordanians approved of suicide bombing in 2005, but that number dropped to 29 percent after the 2005 Amman bombings. Confidence in Osama bin Laden to "do the right thing in world affairs" has gone down steadily. Opinions of the United States in Africa-both among Muslims and non-Muslims-are "pretty positive." And there's support for some U.S. values: Muslims generally have positive views of American business practices; they want more democracy (but fault U.S. efforts to promote it as insincere or inconsistent); and, like many Westerners, they view globalization as a mixed blessing.

A number of thought-provoking questions followed. Asked about the "socioeconomic breakdown" of the poll results, Kohut said that "views tend to be widely shared." Pew found few differences of opinion between the educated and the rest of society; better-informed Muslims were often more critical of the United States than others.

Another participant wondered why opposition to America was so universal in Turkey, which has received billions in aid money and military assistance. Calling this phenomenon "extraordinary," Kohut identified opposition to the Iraq war as a major factor, which then exacerbated tensions between Ankara and its Kurdish population. "The problem in Turkey is very, very bad": Americans have even become stock villains in Turkish popular culture.

And what about the belief in the Muslim world that Israel was responsible for the September 11 attacks? One attendee recalled a meeting he had with a group of Jordanian PhD students-before the invasion of Iraq-all of whom were convinced of this. Kohut responded with an even-more-shocking statistic: only 42 percent of American Muslims believe that their coreligionists carried out 9/11. Kohut spoke of an "unwillingness to accept" that a Muslim could commit such acts, but rejected the notion that Muslims were "in any sense brainwashed."

Kohut was also asked what specifically Muslims objected to about the war in Iraq. A prevalent view, he said, "apparent in 2002," was that the United States "has no business taking over Muslim countries." The Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prison scandals have only "reinforced" this, he added, though Iraqis have at times been more supportive of the American war effort than other Muslims.

So has America succeeded in improving its image in the Muslim world in any way? Kohut argued that the answer was yes-but only on a very-limited scale. A "Sunni-Shia split" is emerging due to the rise of Iran, prompting more positive views of the United States among Sunnis in Lebanon (Kohut added that this was not a beneficial development, however). And aid money for Pakistan and Indonesia after natural disasters did rehabilitate America in the eyes of Muslims somewhat. Yet Kohut emphasized that the effect of "public diplomacy" is destined to be negligible: policy is the bigger problem.

 

Andrew E. Title is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.