Is Muslim anti-Americanism driven by our culture or our foreign policy? Do they hate us for "who we are," or "what we do?"
An analysis of Muslim public opinion since 9/11 finds that, on balance, the "foreign policy trumps culture" argument is correct. This finding has important implications for the debate over U.S. Middle East policy and the broader war on terrorism.
Washington's foreign policy interventionists say we are in a cultural war between modernity and Islamic fundamentalism that necessitates military engagement and diplomatic favoritism. But non-interventionists contend that U.S. foreign policy acts as the unintentional catalyst for Muslim - especially Arab - anti-Americanism that obscures the average Muslim's fundamental lack of enmity towards the American people or American culture.
A March 2008 University of Maryland/Zogby International poll of public attitudes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates found that 83 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable view of the United States. Critically, the poll found attitudes toward the United States are based more on American policy in the Middle East (80 percent) than on American values (12 percent).
The Pew Global Attitudes Project's spring 2007 survey also found an abysmal United States image in Muslim countries: "There is tremendous opposition to the war on terror in most Muslim countries," according to survey director Andrew Kohut. An earlier Zogby poll found 59 percent of Egyptians said American policies in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, rather than American values, antagonize them.
According to a 2007 University of Maryland survey, most Muslims want the United States to withdraw its bases and troops from all Islamic countries. Majorities in all Muslim countries also want the United States to stop favoring Israel in its relations with the Palestinians. In no Muslim country does a majority trust the United States to help in the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Data also exists to address Muslim views of American culture. Political scientist Mark Tessler's analysis of a 2002 Zogby poll noted that favorable attitudes were expressed by substantial numbers of respondents when asked about American education, science, movies, television, and the American people in general. Tessler contends that "antipathy toward the U.S. ... does not flow from cultural dissonance."
The uncomfortable truth is that changing Muslim attitudes toward the United States requires changing American policies rather than simply explaining them better, as evidenced by the State Department's unsuccessful efforts over the past several years to improve America's image abroad.
Pollster Daniel Yankelovich's recent review of Gallup public opinion data persuaded him that American interventionism and diplomatic saber-rattling undermines, crucially, "the efforts of moderate clerics and political leaders to rein in extremism."
Yet, something can be done. An altogether more modest United States foreign policy, rather than conceding ground to Islamic terrorism, may better serve to isolate the fanatics and extremists, which could significantly improve the United State's counterterrorism effort. In the Muslim world, less may actually be more.