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Anti-Americanism Surges in Muslim Nations - 2003-03-10


Recent surveys of nearly 40,000 people in 44 countries indicate a startling loss of international support for the United States. Andrew Kohut, Director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, says America's image is slipping not only in Muslim countries but also in NATO nations, the developing world and Eastern Europe.

"We found in 27 countries where we had a benchmark, the American image was lower in 19 of those countries," he says. "The real dislike of America continues to be concentrated in the Muslim nations of the Middle East."

Mr. Kohut says there is still a large reserve of goodwill for American citizens, but little of it can be found in the Middle East.

"The most disturbing decline in my view was the way in which the public of our NATO ally Turkey has changed," he says. "Our unfavorable rating rose from 20 percent in the year 2000 to 55 percent in late 2002 when we did this survey. And in Pakistan our new ally on the war on terror, only 10 percent of Pakistanis said they had a good opinion of the United States."

Mr. Kohut says part of this drop is a clear backlash in the Muslim world against the war on terrorism. In 10 of 11 Muslim countries, the public indicate they do not like the war against terror. He notes a majority of Muslims say that perceived U.S. support of Israel drives anti-American sentiment in their countries.

"Dislike of the United States is principally driven by our Middle East policies, " he says. "A Gallup poll, which conducted nationwide surveys in nine Muslim nations at the beginning of 2002, summed it up this way: they said the perception that Western nations are not fair in their stance toward Palestine fits with the more generalized view that the West is unfair to Arab and Islamic worlds."

However, Mr. Kohut says American cultural exports, including movies, television and music, continue to be well received across the Muslim world. One example is a new U.S. public diplomacy initiative called Radio Sawa (the name means 'together' in Arabic). It is a project of the International Broadcasting Bureau, the U.S. government agency that also operates the Voice of America. Independent observers say Radio Sawa's unrivaled mix of Western and Arabic music, speckled with short newscasts, draws a large audience in the Arab world.

Communications professor R.S. Zaharna of Washington's American University says the listeners enjoy the music and the American style of interactive communication. For example, people across the Middle East express their opinions openly on a popular program called Sawa Chat.

But professor Zaharna warns many U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims are not working. "I'm concerned that American public diplomacy appears to be backfiring and doing more of the same may hurt us more than help us," she says.

"Since September 11, 2001, America has turned up the volume of American public diplomacy with high-profile, aggressive initiatives in the Arab and Muslim world. With such an intensive and concerted effort one would expect positive results. Instead, support for America has declined and anti-Americanism has grown."

Professor Zaharna says part of the problem is that U.S. policy often focuses too much on the getting out the message instead of taking the time to build relationships. "American executives often complain that they must spend endless hours and sometimes days having coffee or tea before they get down to business," she says.

"It's not because we like coffee or tea so much, but it's because relationships are the cornerstone of activities in this part of the world. And so instead of speaking at the people in the Muslim world, we need to speak with them and start looking more on ways of creating a dialogue."

Professor Zaharna says damage is also done when the U.S. government sends conflicting messages to Muslims. For example, U.S. officials insist the war on terror is not a war on Islam. At the same time, Muslims hear reports of Muslims in America detained and treated with suspicion. Professor Zaharna says in the age of instant global communications, what is said in America is heard around the globe.

"The derogatory statements made by prominent American religious leaders quickly spread like wildfire through Asia, Africa and the Middle East," she says. "President Bush condemned some of the comments. A few of the leaders apologized. Nevertheless, the damage was already done. America's own religious tolerance became suspect."

Professor Zaharna says U.S. leaders and citizens can make a genuine difference at home by visiting a mosque or attending a Muslim community event. These gestures send a strong message about American tolerance, diversity and democracy.

A top ranking official on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, says public diplomacy is limited by U.S. foreign policies. For example, the lack of an American initiative to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict has fostered resentment in the Muslim world. "The Middle East or Palestinian issue is of gigantic consequence," he says. "And I would agree that there is a direct correlation between our neglect, our benign neglect (of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), and that translates into opposition."

Professor Zaharna adds that extensive media coverage of a possible U.S. military attack and eventual occupation of Iraq adds to Muslim hostility toward America. She says Muslims associate the term 'military occupation' with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

But Senator Biden points out the treatment of Muslims in the United States has been reasonable, if not generous, considering the circumstances of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "In the face of the terrorist acts that occurred here, which were the product of those who happen to be Muslim, I would argue the United States has acted better than any other country in the world in terms of how it treats the minority of Muslim-American citizens," he says.

Observers will closely watch the level of anti-Americanism if the United States goes to war with Iraq. With much of the world public opinion against the war, analysts say U.S. public diplomacy will have even greater challenges ahead.

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