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Islam and the West Grow Further Apart?

The gulf between Muslims and the West, say many analysts is widening, particularly between Muslims and the United States. And some warn that an "us versus them" phenomenon is spreading throughout the Muslim world.

A rare point of agreement between Westerners and Muslims is that both sides acknowledge they don't get along very well these days. The disagreement begins again, however, when discussing who is to blame for that. This was the overall finding of a recent public opinion survey conducted in six Muslim and six Western countries, including the United States.

"Westerners see Muslims as fanatical, violent and not tolerant. Muslims see Westerners as selfish, immoral, greedy, as well as violent and fanatical. There is a lot of finger pointing, clearly, going on in the way Westerners and Muslims look at each other," says Andrew Kohut, the Director of the Pew Research Center in Washington, which carried out the survey.

According to the survey, the greatest divide exists between the United States and the Muslim world. Americans are viewed unfavorably in all the Muslim countries polled -- Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Support for America is even eroding in Muslim countries considered friendly toward the United States. In Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, just 12 percent of the respondents have a favorable view of the U.S. In Jordan, which traditionally has had close relations with the United States, only 15 percent are positive about America.

Undermined Security

An "us versus them" phenomenon is spreading throughout the Muslim world, cautions analyst Kohut.

He says, "Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is driven by the United States' policies -- the war in Iraq most recently, the war on terrorism generally, U.S. support for Israel probably most fully -- and the general perception that the United States conducts its foreign policy unilaterally."

Pew surveys also show that most Muslims never accepted the U.S. justification for the war on terrorism. Instead of seeing it as strategy to fight those who pose a threat to the United States, many in the Muslim world view it as a way for the United States to pick on and weaken Muslim countries.

Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at Delaware University who writes frequently on relations between Islam and the West, says that the United States often acts without concern for the interests of others.

"We must realize that we cannot be more secure by making others feel insecure. We live in a highly globalized and interdependent world. It is important that the U.S. work for the security of all, including Muslim nations, Muslim societies," argues professor Khan.

Hardened Perceptions

Other analysts say that Americans do want good relations with the rest of the world, but they believe national security comes first in times of trouble.

Michele Dunne, an expert on Arab affairs in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that after September 2001, it was the political behavior of the countries of the Middle East, not their religion, that became the center of U.S. attention.

She says the “Bush administration focused on the fact that several states in the Middle East -- Iraq, Iran and Syria, and to a lesser extent Libya -- were fanning the flames of regional conflicts and creating a dangerous strategic environment through the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration came to office with the idea that this was the main problem in the Middle East."

Counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, Director of the RAND research institute in Washington, agrees. But he says some of the antagonisms are fueled by misconceptions.

"I think there is a large amount of our attitude towards the Middle East and the Muslim world that's based on conjecture, rather than on a deep knowledge. And I think fundamentally we don't understand the constituency in the Middle East, in the Muslim world that we need to appeal to and who we need to enlist in this struggle and rather in recent years, we've inadvertently alienated," explains counterterrorist specialist Bruce Hoffman.

Delaware University's Professor Khan contends that the escalating violence in the Middle East is hardening Muslim perceptions that the U.S.-led West is warring on Islam.

He says this has weakened moderates and strengthened extremists in the region. "If moderate Muslims cannot deliver, then Muslims will abandon that option and seek another option. If our moderate allies in the Middle East will not provide Muslims' security, dignity, respect and freedom, then they will turn to the next option," says political scientist Khan.

Bringing About Change

Still, many Middle East specialists suggest there are ways for turning things around. Mona Yacoubian of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington says defusing the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian problem is one of them.

"Real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a huge plus, I think that would go a long way. At a minimum, a sense or an image of America as a force of peace and reconciliation rather than one who projects military might into the region could go a long way," maintains Mona Yacoubian.

She also emphasizes that many in the Middle East are receptive to the Bush administration's campaign to promote economic freedom and democracy. She says that there have been times when President Bush's speeches have resonated profoundly in the Middle East, ”And, I do think, that there have been hopeful moments in the region, in particular among non-government actors and opposition parties pressuring for democracy.”

Still, these successes were quickly “overshadowed by the images of violence coming out of Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories,” says Arab specialist Yacoubian.

Many analysts agree that in order to narrow the divide between America and the Muslim world, the United States needs to acknowledge the impact of American foreign policy on the Muslim world, and the Muslim world needs to respond to charges that Islam spawns violence.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.