Experts: Islam-US Relations at Nadir
By Pamela Hess


Washington, DC: Five years after the United States received the world's sympathy for the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Middle East and terrorism experts and a top poll taker reported to a Senate committee that the attitudes of Muslims have shifted sharply away from the United States.
A panel of experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, whether reasonable or not, the war in Iraq, the detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo, and now the United States refusal to intercede against Israel in Lebanon causes Muslims to believe the United States has abandoned its core principles of human rights, democracy and freedom.
In the year 2000, 52 percent of Turkish people polled reported a favorable view of the United States. That is now down to 12 percent favorable. In Indonesia in 2002, the favorable rating was 61 percent. Even with massive US aid after the tsunami, in 2006 only 30 percent of those polled report a favorable impression of the United States. Nigeria has also seen a sharp decline: 72 percent rated the United States favorably in 2002; that is now down to 32 percent. And in both Indonesia and Nigeria, Osama bin Laden is regularly cited as a role model, the witnesses told the sparsely attended committee hearing.
Increasingly, that distaste for American policies is extending itself to a dislike of Americans, where once the two were considered separate issues. In Turkey, a NATO ally, 69 percent report a dislike of Americans. In Pakistan, it is 52 percent. In Indonesia, 60 percent dislike Americans and in Nigeria, 75 percent of Muslims report a dislike of or Americans, according to Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center.
Moreover, the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, including those in Europe, do not believe the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by Arabs.
Clearly, the United States is losing the war of ideas.
Akbar Ahmed, a professor at the American University in Washington and former high commissioner from Pakistan to Britain, traveled throughout the Middle East and Asia from February to April to discuss the tension between Islam and the United States.
"I have never encountered such intensity of emotion. The Muslim world in the years of the Cold War, when the United States was obviously the moral power, admired and respected the United States. Today we found that many Muslims do not see the United States as the moral power it once used to be; in fact, many of the people we surveyed through the nine countries said they would prefer Saddam Hussein, the most ruthless and vile of dictators, to the Americans in Iraq."
The Israeli attack on Lebanon with apparent American blessing only reinforces that view, said Muqtedar Khan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a periodic adviser to the White House.
"The way we have abandoned Lebanon, I'm not very sure if any moderate Muslims will be able to take a risk (and move toward democracy,)" he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., disputed that point, saying the Israeli attack was a result of Hezbollah's aggression, and Iranian patronage.
Khan responded that soon after Israel began the attacks -- an attempt to force the Shiite militia Hezbollah to return kidnapped soldiers and withdraw from the border area -- US President Bush proclaimed Israel's right to defend itself.
"I was amazed how nobody has said Lebanon has a right to defend itself," Khan said.
This reinforces belief in the Muslim world, fanned by al-Qaida rhetoric, that the United States does not think Muslims have the right to security or peace.
That alienates moderate Muslims who are agitating for human rights and democracy in their own countries, and it strengthens Islamic fanatics they oppose and against whom they are losing ground.
"The vision that delivers reform, change, empowerment and security (in the Muslim word) will win. So far Islamists have done a better job than most in the Arab world, unlike in South Asia and East Asia. Moderate and liberal Muslims can win the battle for the soul of Islam only if they are able to deliver. So far they have failed. So far everyone has failed except for the radical who at least hit back against those Muslims perceive as enemies," Khan said.
"The current crisis in Lebanon goes a long way to convince Muslims that radical Islamists are right when they say that Israel with the help of the United States is out to destroy their nations," Khan said.
Ahmed said the US invasion of Iraq has set a dangerous precedent, opening the door for the Israeli attack on Lebanon, as well as a statement Tuesday made by Turkey that if US and Iraqi forces do not crack down on Kurdish guerilla groups in northern Iraq, it will take matters into its own hands.
"The United States needs to get ahead of events" rather than just responding to them, said Ahmed, offering economic and humanitarian aid and support for moderate forces of Islam around the globe. "You need to make allies who respect you. People feel like the United States is a fair-weather friend. You need to play a long-term game, learn to play the game through culture, honor, human rights and democracy."
Khan compared the US relationship to the Middle East -- centered as it has been on oil -- to dating an extremely beautiful person. The United States has responded only to the beauty (the oil) and ignored everything else that needs attention to make the relationship work. (Courtesy UPI)

 

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