All the World's A Stage: America's Image in the Muslim World

All the World's A Stage: America's Image in the Muslim World

Mini Teaser: "Simply put, America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal." With the deepening and unrelenting challenges we face in the Middle East, how much has America’s image in the Muslim world declined?

by Author(s): Andrew KohutRichard Wike

SIMPLY PUT, America's image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal. Iraq, the war on terrorism, American support for Israel and other key features of U.S. foreign policy continue to generate animosity in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. In many nations considered central to the war on terror, the general public deeply distrusts the United States. Even in countries like Kuwait that have long been considered relatively pro-American, the U.S. image has declined.

On the bright side, America seems to be winning the battle of ideas on some important fronts. First and foremost, support for terrorism has declined dramatically over the last few years in many Muslim countries. Fewer Muslims now consider suicide bombing justifiable, and confidence in Osama bin Laden has waned. Moreover, the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed the extent to which there is broad support for democracy, capitalism and globalization throughout all regions of the world, including Muslim nations. Support for American ideas, however, does not necessarily translate into warm feelings for the United States. Instead, Muslims believe the United States fails to live up to its rhetoric on democracy, and they tend to blame the United States for the aspects of globalization they do not like.

Much of the resentment the United States faces in Muslim countries is driven by perceptions of American power and fears about how America wields its might. Many Muslims distrust U.S. motives, and they worry that our country's considerable military strength may someday be targeted at them. Even in the realm of culture, many Muslims fear their own traditions may be displaced by creeping Americanization. World events have deepened these fears in recent years, and opposition to U.S. foreign policy has entrenched anti-Americanism.


Fall from Grace

THE PEW Global Attitudes Project has tracked America's declining image throughout much of the world over the last several years. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of people with a favorable view of the United States fell in twenty-six countries out of the thirty-three where trend data are available. Ratings of the United States are disturbingly low among many of our longtime European allies, and they have dipped in Latin America and other parts of the world as well. The findings are especially dismal in Muslim nations.


Pew surveyed forty-seven countries in 2007 and found that in nine of them, less than 30% of the population gave the United States a favorable rating-tellingly, all but one of those countries were predominantly Muslim (the lone exception being Argentina).1 Turkey had the dubious distinction of giving the United States its lowest score-only nine out of one hundred Turks hold a favorable view of the United States, down a stunning forty-three percentage points from a U.S. State Department survey in 2000. In some Muslim nations, America's image has rebounded slightly from its 2003 low, but these improvements have generally been quite modest. Any progress is welcome, of course, but clearly the numbers remain quite grim. For example, the 2007 poll found that 20% of Jordanians held a positive view of the United States, up from only 1% in a poll conducted just two months after the start of the Iraq War. Similarly, U.S. favorability in the Palestinian territories climbed from less than 1% in 2003 to 13% in 2007.

Anti-Americanism in Muslim countries runs deep. For instance, in addition to their unfavorable views of the United States as a country, many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere see the American people in a negative light-less than one-third of Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Pakistanis and Turks have a positive opinion of Americans. In a 2005 Pew study, Muslims from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia consistently characterized Americans as greedy, violent, rude and immoral. Few, on the other hand, labeled Americans as honest.


Disapproval and Distrust

WHAT DRIVES these anti-American sentiments? Most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity. The war in Iraq both solidified anti-Americanism in the Arab Middle East and extended it to other parts of the Muslim world, such as Turkey and Indonesia. But it is not just Iraq-other key features of American foreign policy are also widely unpopular. Solid majorities in all thirteen predominantly Muslim publics surveyed by Pew in 2007 agreed that the United States should remove its troops from Iraq. Yet, almost equally large majorities in all thirteen felt U.S. and NATO forces should be removed from Afghanistan, too.

Most of the Muslim world overwhelmingly opposes the U.S.-led war on terrorism. That includes countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, usually considered key partners in the fight against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. And a 2006 Pew poll found that the war on terror is extremely unpopular among Muslims in Britain, France, Germany and Spain-a troubling finding, given the importance of those communities in preventing terrorist attacks in the West. Many Muslims think Americans' fears about terrorism are overblown-when asked in 2004 whether the United States is right to be so concerned about the threat of international terrorism or whether it is overreacting to this threat, majorities of Jordanians, Moroccans, Pakistanis and Turks answered the latter.

Perceptions of U.S. policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also feed anti-Americanism. Large majorities of the Muslim publics Pew has surveyed over the last few years believe American foreign policy is too pro-Israel. Of course, this sentiment is shared by many non-Muslims as well-62% of the French general public and 57% in Germany agree. Even in Israel a 42% plurality says the United States favors their country too much. But in Muslim-and especially Arab-countries, this issue is clearly more salient. There, the belief that American policy slants toward Israel is almost universal: more than 80% of Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Kuwaitis and Moroccans say the United States has a pro-Israel bias.

But concerns about the United States go beyond any single policy. To a large extent, America is disliked in the Muslim world because of its power-and especially because of how it is perceived to be using it. Unrivaled since the end of the cold war and on the offensive since the 9/11 attacks, the United States is seen as a menacing giant, using its considerable strength without regard for others. When asked whether the United States takes into account the interests of countries like theirs when making foreign-policy decisions, only 14% of Turks, 12% of Palestinians and 9% of Moroccans said it does. Even in Kuwait, which after all was liberated by American troops in 1991, only 30% in Pew's 2007 poll said the United States considers their interests a great deal or fair amount, down from 61% in 2003.

Muslims also worry that America's military strength might someday be directed at them. In the eleven predominantly Muslim countries where the question was asked in 2007, at least 60% said they were very or somewhat worried that the United States could become a military threat to their country someday. And more than three out of four (76%) say this in Turkey-a country that has been a NATO ally of the United States for over half a century. Turks most often named the United States (64%) the nation that poses the greatest potential threat to their country, with Iraq (13%) and Russia (9%) a quite-distant second and third. The notion of a U.S. military attack on Turkey may seem far-fetched to many Americans, but in 2004, Turkish authors Burak Turna and Orkun Ucar tapped into these fears with great commercial success. Their novel Metal Storm features a U.S.-Turkish war that ultimately ends with a nuclear attack on Washington, DC. One of the fastest-selling books in the country's history, it was reportedly widely read in the Turkish cabinet and Foreign Ministry.

And there is also considerable distrust of American intentions. In 2004, majorities in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey said the U.S.-led war on terrorism was not a sincere effort. Respondents in these countries identified a litany of ulterior motives: controlling Middle Eastern oil, protecting Israel, targeting unfriendly Muslim governments and, most ominously, dominating the world.


Many do not even trust American explanations regarding the event that led to the war on terror-the 9/11 attacks. Suspicion of American motives runs so deep that many now question al-Qaeda's responsibility for the tragedy. Astonishingly, less than half of Muslims surveyed in 2006 in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, Britain, France, Germany and Spain believed the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The number of Turks believing Arabs were responsible actually dropped to 16% in 2006, down from 46% in 2002 when the Gallup Organization asked about this issue.

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