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It’s not just foreign policy that makes Americans unpopular in the Muslim world

It’s not just foreign policy that makes Americans unpopular in the Muslim world

The United States doesn’t get a lot of love from the Muslim world. Only eight percent of Pakistanis, for instance, view the U.S. as a partner, according to a Pew opinion poll conducted in June. Fully 74 percent consider the U.S. an enemy — $30 billion in direct aid pledged since 1948 notwithstanding. Equally discouraging is the recent outpouring of anti-American sentiment in Yemen, where President Barack Obama promised more than $175 million in non-military development and humanitarian aid for this year alone.

It’s unfortunate, but there’s an easy explanation, right? American values, perceived as antithetical to Islam, coupled with U.S. foreign policy — think drones and American support for Israel — have made the U.S. so unpopular in the Muslim world that no amount of aid can rehabilitate its image.

Not so fast. Political scientists Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer have a provocative article in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review that challenges the notion that "individuals form their opinions about the United States primarily as a direct reaction to what the United States is or does."

Obviously, grievances of this type are not irrelevant, but Blaydes and Linzer argue that anti-American sentiment is primarily concocted by political elites who try to ideologically "outbid" each other in their quest for votes. They call it "instrumental" anti-Americanism, and their model predicts when it’s most likely to occur.

We trace the source of Muslim ant-Americanism to the intensity of domestic political competition between a country’s Islamist and secular-national factions…Where the struggle for political control between these two groups escalates, elites of both types have incentives to ramp up anti-American appeals to boost mass support. 

This theory helps to explain why anti-American attitudes among Muslims are remarkably stable over time. (You would expect them to shift with major events like the Iraq war if they were formed in response to policy decisions.) It also explains why the most devout Muslim countries — like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states — have more favorable attitudes toward the U.S. than countries that are split between religious and secular constituencies.

Anti-Americanism is much more widespread in countries with higher perceived levels of struggle between secular and Islamist elites, as well as in countries with lower overall levels of religiosity among the Muslim population. 

In Turkey, for example, only 36 percent of Muslims consider themselves highly religious, but fully 90 percent reported unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S. In Senegal, by contrast, 83 percent of Muslims consider themselves highly religious, but only 30 percent had negative feelings about the U.S. In Morocco, which splits the difference between Turkey and Senegal on religiosity, 79 percent of respondents reported unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S.

So if you think Islam goes hand in hand with anti-Americanism, think again. And considering that in Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan — all among the top ten recipients of U.S. aid — at least 75 percent of respondents felt negatively about the United States, policy doesn’t fully explain anti-Americanism, either.