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Jewish World Review March 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Nisan, 5762

Bill Schneider

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Reciprocal hostility | The "clash of civilizations" continues. That's what the Gallup Organization found when it polled the Islamic world in December and January. The survey included five Arab countries (Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia), two Central Asian countries (Iran and Pakistan), one Southeast Asian country (Indonesia), and one Muslim member of NATO (Turkey).

First, the good news for the United States: In six out of seven countries where the question was asked, solid majorities expressed the view that the September 11 attacks were morally unjustifiable (Kuwaitis were split). On average, two-thirds called the attacks unjustifiable, while only 15 percent called them justifiable. As one man in Beirut, Lebanon, put it, "Nothing justifies the attacks on September 11 against the American people."

Now, the bad news: Even larger majorities in every Muslim country condemned U.S. military action in Afghanistan as "morally unjustifiable." The average across seven countries: 76 percent "unjustifiable," 10 percent "justifiable." One young man in Teheran explained, "If the reaction takes the form of an attack on Afghanistan and other countries in the name of fighting terrorism, it is not justified."

Among Pakistanis surveyed, 61 percent condemned the September 11 attacks as unjustifiable. But 80 percent condemned U.S. military action in Afghanistan as unjustifiable, even though Pakistan has been a key U.S. ally in this fight.

Even more shocking was that 3-to-1 majorities, on average, did not believe that Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks. For example, in Indonesia, a Muslim but not an Arab country, only 20 percent of the people surveyed said they believed Arabs were responsible for the attacks. So who did they think was to blame for the September 11 terrorism? Gallup reports that "a significant percentage" did not venture any response. Some, particularly in Turkey, which has a pro-Western tradition, refused to blame Arabs yet pointed to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. In other Muslim countries, however, many people said the attacks were perpetrated by Israel, by non-Muslim terrorists, or even by the United States itself.

Do people in the Islamic world even like the United States? Alas, no. By 2-to-1, they expressed unfavorable opinions of the United States (49 percent unfavorable, 24 percent favorable across the nine countries). Opinion of President Bush was even more negative: An average of 12 percent favorable and 58 percent unfavorable. A woman in Istanbul commented, "I think he is not stable enough as a leader."

Look at Morocco, traditionally not a radical Arab country. There, 41 percent of the people polled had an unfavorable opinion of the United States. And 71 percent had a negative opinion of Bush.

Gallup describes people in these Muslim countries as "resentful." They admire America's prosperity, technological prowess, and freedom. But they resent the U.S. attitude toward the rest of the world, which solid majorities in the poll described as ruthless, aggressive, arrogant, and biased. The United States was perceived to be biased against Islamic values and Palestinian interests. The pollster calls "striking" the degree to which people in the Islamic world were willing to ascribe negative qualities to the United States, compared with Britain, France, and Russia.

And it's not just American policies that the Muslim world resents. It's also American values and, more generally, "Western" values. People in Muslim countries think that those values have a negative impact on their culture. On the average, 15 percent think Western values have a positive influence, while 53 percent said they have a negative influence. That's true even in Turkey. Forty-five percent of Turks said that Western values harm their culture, while only 10 percent saw a positive impact.

What's their complaint about Western values? According to Gallup, "The answer is clear: Western morals and decadent culture." Plus the overwhelming Muslim view is that Western nations do not have much respect for Arab or Islamic values.

People in these countries resent Western values that they see as deeply materialistic and secular. They resent American culture in particular as a corrupting influence on their societies. The poll makes it clear: People in the Islamic world do not see the United States as a model.

Are those negative feelings reciprocated? Yes. Last weekend, Gallup asked Americans about the Islamic world. Forty-one percent of Americans expressed a negative opinion of "Muslim countries," compared with 24 percent who held a favorable view.

Asked why so many Muslims have an unfavorable opinion of the United States, most Americans cite policy differences: because the United States favors Israel, interferes in the affairs of Muslim countries, and uses military force in Muslim countries. What about value differences, such as Americans' supposedly low moral standards, exploitative capitalism, rampant crime, and poor family values? Fewer Americans see those differences as a cause of friction.

The "clash of civilizations" may be real, but Americans refuse to acknowledge it. Seventy-one percent of Americans think that the Muslim world considers itself at war with the United States. But 64 percent of Americans insist the United States is not at war with the Muslim world.

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© 2002, William Schneider