Wait, You Still Don’t Like Us?

Why the Muslim world hasn't warmed toward America over the past four years.


Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, an issue that was front and center throughout much of the George W. Bush era, is squarely back in the news following the protests that swept across more than 20 countries in reaction to a controversial anti-Islam film. The all-too-familiar images of angry demonstrators burning the Stars and Stripes are a dramatic reminder that, while the image of the United States has improved throughout many parts of the world during Barack Obama’s presidency, negative views of America remain stubbornly persistent in key Muslim countries. Much of this animosity is due to continuing concerns about U.S. power and widespread opposition to major elements of American foreign policy. But it’s not just about the United States — rather, anti-Americanism needs to be seen within a broader context of distrust between Muslims and the West.

Following his election, Obama made it a priority to change America’s dismal image in the Muslim world, most prominently in his June 2009 Cairo speech. And he has had some successes; in fact, Muslim publics still generally give him more positive ratings than Bush received. For instance, in a spring 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, only 24 percent of Turks express confidence in Obama; still, that’s a whole lot better than the 2 percent who felt this way about Bush during his final year in office. Also, due in part to having lived there for a few years as a child, Obama has consistently received high marks in Indonesia, and his popularity has helped turn around America’s image in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

But overall, the picture remains grim. In Egypt, for example, despite all the tumult of the revolution, America’s image remains roughly where it was four years ago — then 22 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the United States; in the 2012 poll, it was 19 percent. Among Pakistanis and Jordanians, America’s already poor ratings have declined further since 2008 — in both countries, 19 percent held a positive view of the U.S. four years ago, compared with just 12 percent in 2012.

Why hasn’t America’s image improved? In part, many Muslims around the world continue to voice the same criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that were common in the Bush years. U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are still widely unpopular. America is still seen as ignoring the interests of other countries. Few think Obama has been even-handed in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the current administration’s increased reliance on drone strikes to target extremists is overwhelmingly unpopular — more than 80 percent of Jordanians, Egyptians, and Turks oppose the drone campaign.

The opposition to drone strikes points to a broader issue: a widespread distrust of American power. This is especially true when the United States employs hard power, whether it’s the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But it is true even for elements of American soft power. Predominantly Muslim nations are generally among the least likely to embrace U.S. popular culture or the spread of American ideas and customs. Only 36 percent of Egyptians like American music, movies, and television, and just 11 percent believe it is good that U.S. ideas and customs are spreading to their country.

But America’s image problems are not due solely to fears of American power. In some ways, the issue of anti-Americanism is part of a broader story about mutual distrust between Muslims and Westerners. Polling by Pew in 2006 and 2011 highlighted the extent to which Muslim and Western publics see their relations with each other as bad, and the degree to which they blame each other for the poor state of affairs.

In the West, fears about extremism and violence continue to play a role in driving these views. Among Muslims, many describe Westerners as selfish, greedy, and violent, and the 2011 poll found majorities of Muslims in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Turkey saying that both Americans and Europeans tend to be hostile toward Muslims. Also, large numbers of Muslims surveyed in 2011 blamed Western policies for the lack of prosperity in Muslim nations.

Just like the headlines from the past week, the survey data paint a fairly bleak picture. The "Obama effect" that changed America’s battered image in Europe and other parts of the globe did not register in many predominantly Muslim nations. Even so, there are some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is important to keep in mind that the "Muslim world" is not monolithic. In the 2012 Pew survey, two-thirds of Lebanese Sunni Muslims expressed a positive view of the United States. In newly democratic Tunisia, opinions were equally divided, with 45 percent giving the United States a positive rating and 45 percent a negative one. Previous polling found largely positive views of the United States among Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria following Obama’s election.

Moreover, some aspects of American soft power are appealing to Muslim publics. American-style business is especially popular in Arab nations. Indeed, among the 21 nations included in spring 2012 survey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia were the only countries where more than half said they like American ways of doing business. And even though U.S. democracy-promotion efforts have been met with skepticism by many Muslims over the last decade, America’s democratic tradition continues to have some appeal. Six-in-ten Tunisians and more than four-in-ten Egyptians, Jordanians, and Lebanese say they like American ideas about democracy. And young people are especially likely to embrace these ideas. Some 72 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds like U.S.-style democracy in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

Majorities or pluralities in six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed by Pew in 2012 said democracy is the best form of government, and polling has consistently shown that Muslims in countries throughout the world support specific features of democracy, including institutions such as a free press and multiparty elections that serve as cornerstones of Western democratic systems.

So while many Muslims continue to oppose U.S. policies and remain uneasy about American power, many also want to see their own countries adopt some central features of American society. And that’s, at least, a bit of good news.

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