Islamic World’s Attitudes on US Strongly Negative
US Public Diplomacy: A long row to hoe in the Islamic World
Worldpublicopinion.org a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, has recently published an public opinion poll on attitudes toward the US, terrorist organization, and a generalized ‘clash of civilizations’. [The link is to a 28-page PDF document. The questionnaire is also available as a 20-page PDF] The polling was conducted in Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, and Pakistan between December 2006 and February 2007.
The results are pretty depressing. Majorities have negative views of the US government. Gross majorities believe it is US policy to undermine and divide the Islamic world and to spread Christianity. Majorities have a negative view of Western culture and believe that groups like Al-Qaeda are right in trying to fight its spread.
Majorities believe that the US is actively working to help Israel extend its territory and large numbers believe that the US is not really interested in a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli problem.
Surprisingly large numbers believe that the true identities of the 9/11 attackers remain unknown with many believing, still, that either the US or Israel is behind the attacks. In none of the four countries is Al-Qaeda identified as being responsible by more than 35% of the polled population.
Majorities share the Al-Qaeda belief that Muslim countries should be ruled by strict Sharia law and that Islamic countries should be unified in a single Islamic state or Caliphate.
There are a few bright notes, though. Majorities in all countries believe that democracy is an appropriate form of government for their own country. Majorities also believe that globalization is good for them, though they object strongly to Western cultural values flooding their own societies.
Majorities in all countries are strongly opposed to attacks on civilian targets in America, Europe, or in Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda’s support among the polled populations is weak; Usama Bin Laden’s support level is even weaker, with maximum support (40%) coming from Egypt.
It’s hard to find much to cheer about here. What’s very clear is that the US has an enormous task ahead if it is to improve is image in the Islamic world. There are, though, some indications that this is possible.
The paradoxical attitudes about American freedoms (good) and American culture (bad) suggest that there is room for discussion here. It doesn’t make it any easier that large segments of American society don’t have clear ideas about what needs to be done in the Islamic world, or even about the Islamic world. It certainly doesn’t help, either, when there is no consensus in the US on the role of America in the world or on American values. With disturbingly large numbers of Americans believing that there’s something ‘fishy’ about 9/11, it’s hard to argue that foreign audiences are simply off the wall.
Attitudes don’t change as the result of a press release or a speech. They change only as the result of sustained behavior and a free flow of information, providing context when possible. This is not going to be an easy task, particularly when groups like the ‘net roots’, anarchical organizations, and purely crazy people muddy the public discourse. I do fear that ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’ has become a global pandemic, but things will not change substantively following the next election.
The US needs to be fully engaged in explaining itself calmly and clearly, admitting when its policies apply differentially. The government can do more to repudiate those who demonize Islam. People—including Islamic audiences—realize that the world is not a tidy place, that one solution doesn’t fit all problems. Consistency, while desirable, is not always achievable, but this is not a new insight. We do need to explain why and how our policies are formed and applied, and what our goals are exactly. The messages explaining these have to be tailored to the audiences, but cannot be different or contradictory, one to the next.
A large part of the problem of attitudes is that foreign audiences, even in highly educated places like Europe, do not have a clear conception of how the US government works, the role of policy advocates and opponents, the role of Congress or the media. One cannot blame the local education systems. After all, what do the average American know about the political system of any other country. We can encourage the development of ‘American Studies’ programs in foreign universities, but we cannot make them happen nor can we ensure that students leave those programs with the ‘right’ ideas.
We cannot and should not seek to control what images and ideas about America are conveyed through our media. We can, though, make use of USG media to try to provide the context of our culture. While Paris Hilton may exemplify the worst we have to offer, her jailing can exemplify the best by demonstrating that rule of law does actually work.