As the U.S. tries to reset relations (yet again) with a Muslim world now reshaped by revolution — a theme President Barack Obama pushed in a major speech Thursday on American policy in the region — officials would be wise to first better understand one of the most fundamental questions about U.S. involvement there.
Why are Muslims, by and large, so mad at America?
The answer is not so simple — not just about invasions, or religious offense or oil greed. A new book, reflecting five years of research on the ground and public opinion polling by political psychologist Steven Kull, suggests a pair of startling and complex explanations.
Kull set out to examine what it is in the wider culture of Muslim-majority countries that breeds anti-U.S. hostility and, among some of those who experience it, movements as drastic as al-Qaeda. Kull performed polls and focus groups throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Asian Pacific from 2006-2010.
“Out of this process, we identified a widespread Muslim narrative of why they are mad at America,” he said, presenting his findings Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. “It was really striking to me how common this was. All the way from Morocco to Indonesia, they were singing off the same song sheet. The closer you get to the Middle East, there’s more intensity, but the themes are really very much the same.”
Kull first identified an overriding sense of oppression by Muslims who experience America’s presence in the region with what he called “a kind of cosmic quality.” Lurking beneath that oppression was an even more curious emotion, and one directly relevant to Obama’s policies heading forward: a sense of betrayal.
Kull recounts, in Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America, four themes common to Muslim complaints of oppression. Large majorities of people polled throughout the region told him that they believe the U.S. coercively dominates the Muslim world – often through the threat of military aggression — to shape it in America’s interests.
“This is one of the things that really came through to me,” Kull said. “That the U.S. is really this 800-pound gorilla in the minds of people in this part of the world, and they feel threatened by it.”
Large majorities in all of the countries surveyed said they believed it was a goal of the U.S. to maintain control of Middle Eastern oil. Many people also told Kull in focus groups that they believed the U.S. controlled even their own countries’ elected officials. Kull said he experienced an “A-ha!” moment when he realized the extent to which Muslims perceive America as possessing overwhelming power (although, oddly, not quite enough power to control its own image abroad). From that realization, Kull wrote an unusual polling question.
“How much of what happens in the world today would you say is controlled by the U.S.?” he asked.
Majorities throughout the Muslim world went with “nearly all” or “most” of what happens. Fifty-nine percent of Egyptians (pre-Arab uprising) said “nearly all.”
Among the other sources of oppression, people also largely said they believe the U.S. is hostile to Islam and seeks to impose a secular order on Muslim countries. And they frequently cited American support for Israel as an illustration of the fear that the U.S. dislikes Islam and maneuvers to dominate the region.
“This is a very powerful iconic image of the whole relationship between the West and the Islamic world,” Kull said of the perception of Palestinians victimized by the U.S. “Most of the time, it’s sort of vague; you can’t really point at it. But here it is right on your television screen — a visible, iconic image of how they feel broadly. There’s a person up there, and they identify with that person, they can point at [the TV] and say, ‘See that’s what we’re talking about.’ That’s the feeling. That’s their narrative.”
In each of these cases, the goals of al-Qaeda if not al-Qaeda’s tactics — align with those of the majority of Muslim populations: to end U.S. domination in the region; to defend against U.S. policies that threaten Islam; to counter U.S. favoritism of Israel.
For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com
In the fourth common concern — perhaps the one that would be most disheartening to Obama — Kull also unearthed a widespread sentiment that the U.S. undermines democracy in the region to preserve its own control. Majorities in every country but the United Arab Emirates said they believe democracy is not a real U.S. objective in the region. And it is this reaction that starts to hint at Kull’s second finding.
“After a while, this other dimension starts coming to the surface, and it has as different tone,” Kull said of his focus-group discussions. “The first one is anger: anger at domination, anger at the colonizer, anger at the oppressor. This one is different, and has a quality of disappointment.”
People frequently told Kull that they admired the values America once embodied — fairness, equality, self-determination, respect for human rights — but that at some point in a linear timeline, the U.S. had turned on those values, and on its responsibility as a world superpower to promote them abroad. (For some, this break occurred after Sept. 11). Within that disappointment, Kull observes, there is a kind of implicit affirmation of those values among people in the region. And, from the U.S., this is both disheartening and promising.
“I want to give you a message to America,” one Egyptian woman told Kull. “It’s that America is a great country, it knows how to maintain freedoms and democracy and human rights. I wish America would respect human beings everywhere and try to save lost human rights all over the world, just as much as it is concerned about bin Laden.”
This sentiment is directly relevant to the task Obama outlined Thursday. It illustrates the optimistic aspect of the Muslim world's view of America. While Muslims share many of their most basic grievances with the culture that produced al-Qaeda, on this polling question, they disagree: “Thinking about Muslim and Western cultures, do you think violent conflict is inevitable, or is it possible to find common ground?”
Majorities or pluralities in public opinion polling said that it was possible to find common ground.