March 1, 2002

Does Middle East distrust U.S.?

A recent survey suggests that many Muslims in the Middle East distrust the United States. On the whole, this does not sounds very surprising given what we've heard about the protests in the streets of Pakistan after the United States began bombing Afghanistan. Nonetheless, this survey has a couple of very interesting results, and I think it shows that there are reasons to be both sanguine and fearful about the future of the region. The main obstacles towards more peace in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, I propose, are the governments of the countries in that region, who perpetuate the image of the United States as an adversary.

First off, however, I have a couple of points on this survey. According to USA Today, 9,924 residents of nine Muslim countries from Morocco to Pakistan were polled about how they felt about the September 11 terrorist attacks and the United States in general. Two-thirds stated that they felt the attacks were morally wrong, but very few thought that Arabs had actually carried them out. This represents, among other things, questions about the news reporting in these nations. All too often journalists are simply told to toe the government's line in reporting on events, and these governments understandably do not want to point out that the hijackers were all Arabs, as the United States claims. I wonder about the supposedly "independent" Middle Eastern television networks such as Al Jazeera. To be certain, Western media has its share of biases, but in the United States in particular, freedom of the press is much more enshrined into the pantheon of civil liberties, and this allows mainstream and non-mainstream press to flourish. In the Middle East, the situation seems very different. This is symptomatic of the problems with the governments in these regions.

Furthermore, as USA Today also reports, this survey suggests that only a slight majority of respondents have unfavorable views of the United States. Very few showed positive attitudes, but only around half were very negatively disposed to us. I think that this reflects something important: not only does the United States government not see this war on terrorism as a war against Islam, but many Muslims feel the same way. The fact of the matter is that this most recent conflict just simply doesn't affect most people in the Muslim world. While radical clerics there and hard right weirdos such as Pat Robertson here will call "jihad" early and often, this survey suggests that many in the Muslim world simply do not buy it. Surely more accept it than we would like, and Osama bin Laden has a larger following there than Robertson has here, but it is refreshing to see that this vaunted "clash of civilizations" might not be playing as well there as Americans had feared. I would even suggest that most Muslims in the United States were affected more (because of the deplorable rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes) than their counterparts in nations such as Jordan or Morocco.

But the above analysis is only part of what this poll tells us. It also suggests that many Muslims hate the United States only insofar as it has a negative impact on the affairs of Muslim nations and Palestinians. I believe that the United States must do more to project an image of being an honest broker of power in the region. This involves supporting Israel's right of self-defense, but also condemning pointless acts of aggression. Ultimately, the Palestinian question will have to be resolved, and it would behoove us to suggest measures that will not increase the entanglement of Israeli and Palestinian territories — a freeze on construction of new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories would be an example of such a policy. This combined with a reminder of how the United States is helping the people of Afghanistan could, in time, bring many positive results.

Ultimately, we have to ask what generates people's attitudes. Here in Hyde Park, we exist in a diverse community in which people of various races and religions work and live together harmoniously. That is not to say, of course, that there are no problems here in Hyde Park or anywhere else in the United States. But there is an ideal of toleration that the vast majority of the people at this university and in this country buy in to, regardless of whether they disagree on the exact way to achieve a race-blind society. Therein lies the problem with most interpretations of this survey: its respondents are not Americans, and as such they do not share the set of ideals and the collective history that we do. The attitude of the respondees to this survey seems very natural given this. They only know of us through our actions, and they haven't, for the reasons mentioned above, really seen us doing more than waving our big stick. Until their governments start allowing more freedom of the press and portray the United States as a partner instead of an adversary, these attitudes will continue.

Finally, it would be irresponsible of us to criticize the attitude of the Muslim world. Instead we must change it by describing the actions we have taken in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Here at this university, we don't attack those who believe differently, and it must work the same way in this situation. How many Americans would say that they had a positive view of the Islamic world after September 11 (or even before)? We are generally ambivalent about parts of the world that we do not live in. We must not expect people in the Islamic world, therefore, to love America. All we must do is show that the United States is not out to destroy their way of life, and also promote the free spread of information as opposed to state controlled media.

Tim Miller, the Viewpoints editor, is a third-year in the College concentrating in economics. He can be reached at btmiller@midway.uchicago.edu.