Intensify efforts to reach Muslims

March 21, 2002|By Fawaz A. Gerges

BRONXVILLE, N.Y. -- It appears that neither the Sept. 11 attacks nor the Bush administration's public diplomacy have dented anti-American sentiments in Muslim countries.

A majority of Muslims still harbor deep resentment toward the United States and its foreign policies, according to a recent Gallup Poll conducted in December and January in nine Muslim countries -- Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait.

Despite Washington's effort to make the case for its war in Afghanistan, 77 percent of all respondents believe that its military action is not morally justified; 53 percent view the United States "very" unfavorably. More alarming is that only 18 percent of all respondents think that Arabs were behind the Sept. 11 attacks and some believe that elements within the United States or Israel likely were behind them.

Based on nearly 10,000 face-to-face interviews with adults in these countries, the findings support, not alter, existing evidence that anti-Americanism has become a staple of Muslim politics.

They also indicate that the United States has garnered little, if any, popular support for its war on terrorism throughout the Muslim world and that its message has fallen on deaf ears. This is worrisome, particularly since the U.S. war on terrorism has just begun, and it questions the efficacy of U.S. public diplomacy grounded in a short-term, superficial campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslim populations.

U.S. officials do not seem to appreciate how hardened and widespread anti-Americanism is in Muslim societies and how difficult it is to change people's perceptions simply by relying on propaganda and spin.

For example, President Bush, asked about the Gallup Poll, said that if the United States shows leadership in the war on terrorism, "the world will follow." Not really. While the United States might be able to twist the arms of its Muslim allies to join the campaign on terror, it will not be able to influence Muslim public opinion without direct and full engagement with local societies.

The Bush administration must adopt a farsighted, longer-term strategy to aggressively compete in the war of ideas and persuade the large "floating middle" of Muslim public opinion that it is committed to promoting human rights, peace and development in Muslim societies. The United States must also directly explain to Muslims the rationale for its foreign policies and make these policies more palatable to them.

A critical analysis of the recent poll's findings, coupled with field studies, points to important lessons that U.S. officials might use to build bridges to Muslim communities and reverse the dominant hostile trend there:

Lesson 1: The more open Muslim societies are, the less anti-American they tend to be. Lebanon and Turkey, two of the freest countries in the Muslim world, had the highest number of respondents who viewed the United States favorably, with 41 percent saying they view America in a positive light.

In contrast, the most negative views of the United States were registered by respondents ruled by autocratic regimes in which there are few outlets for political dissent. U.S. vital interests are served not by cozying up to Muslim dictators but rather by nudging them to gradually reform their authoritarian structures.

Lesson 2: Many respondents pointed to U.S. policies, not cultural or civilizational barriers, as the source of friction. They even praised American accomplishments and freedoms.

This is good news because it is much more difficult to deal with culture than with politics. The Palestinian question emerges as the dominant issue in how Muslims perceive the United States. A sustained and concerted U.S. effort to reduce escalating Palestinian-Israeli hostilities and broker a peace settlement would reduce anti-American feelings considerably.

Lesson 3: The gloomy findings of the survey should not obscure a generational divide that separates the views of Arab youths from their elders and ultimately holds optimism for the future.

This father-son split manifests itself in differing attitudes toward the United States and broader social and political issues. Over the last three years and in six Arab countries, I interviewed hundreds of college students, many of whom held overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward American culture. Although foreign policy figured prominently in the students' discussions, their idea of America revolved around its "soft" power and the endless possibilities that capitalism and open society could hold for them.

The importance of this generational divide lies in the demographic shifts in most Muslim countries, where 65 percent of the population is under 25. It has the potential not only to change the nature of U.S.-Muslim relations but also to shape the sociopolitical landscape in the Islamic world.

The United States can expedite this process by directly investing in the future of these promising young people -- women and men -- and giving them hope. The irony is that we can either drive them to the Osama bin Laden camp or give them the wherewithal to take charge of their own destinies.

There are limits to what the United States can do to influence perceptions in the Muslim world. Some elements that are irrevocably hostile to the United States will not be reached or reasoned with. The challenge facing the United States lies in reaching the large "floating middle" of young Muslim society.

Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is author of the forthcoming The Islamists and the West.

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