Muslims and America: Internalizing the Clash of Civilizations

Muslims and America: Internalizing the Clash of Civilizations

June 7, 2010

By Steven Kull

This paper was first presented at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s 11th Annual Conference on April 28, 2010

Over the last six years I have been conducting a major study of public opinion in the Muslim world. This study included conducting focus groups in six majority Muslim countries and numerous surveys in ten of them, including all of the major ones. It also included a comprehensive analysis of surveys conducted by other organizations.

It will not surprise you to hear that there is quite a lot of anger toward America in the Muslim world. This predated the Bush administration but intensified after the Iraq war.

With the election of Barack Obama there has been substantial hope that views of the US would improve, just as they have in other parts of the world, especially in the wake of the Cairo speech. There have been some improvements, particularly in Egypt itself. Majorities in several majority Muslim countries, including Egypt, have said that they think Obama respects Islam.

But the basic problem of anger at America still largely exists. Majorities in most Muslim countries continue to have a negative view of the US and to perceive the US as seeking to dominate the Muslim world, to undermine Islam and to impose Western culture. Though Obama seems to personally hold some appeal, he is still seen as party to these negative American efforts. In a WPO poll conducted in 2009 in various Muslim countries polled, only small minorities endorsed the view that “In our government’s relations with the US… the US more often treats us fairly” while majorities said the US “abuses its greater power to make us do what the US wants.”

Some have speculated that roots of Muslim anger at America lie in a clash of civilizations between Muslim and the West, that Muslims are simply opposed to liberal values of democracy, pluralism and human rights. Muslims largely reject this view. Numerous polls that we have conducted as well, as well as others by the World Values Survey and Arab Barometer, show strong support throughout the Muslim world for democracy, for human rights, and for an international order based on international law and a strong United Nations.

These surveys do however suggest that there is a kind of internal clash of civilizations or at least some tension of civilizations. For example while large majorities support the principle that will of the people should be the basis of authority for government; majorities also support the notion that shari’a should be the basis for government and that a group of Islamic scholars should be able to vet laws.

As people in this auditorium are well aware, there are many scholars in the Muslim world who are working to develop frameworks for integrating these two various elements into a coherent framework. Some may even feel that conceptually this problem is solved.

But looking at polling data and the way that people behave in focus groups, we do see people responding with inconsistencies and apparent stress. Clearly, assimilating liberal values while preserving Islamic identity is difficult for many Muslims. Furthermore, there are strong reasons to believe that this process of integration has been disrupted and subverted by tensions between the Muslim world and the US, as well as tensions between al Qaeda and the US.

A recurring narrative in focus groups and in polls is that the US has put forward the liberal ideals of democracy and national sovereignty and then effectively abandoned those principles by promoting undemocratic governments in the Muslim world. Thus Muslims feel betrayed by the US.

Naturally Muslims ask, ‘why does the US promote democracy in other parts of the world, but not here?’ This leads them to two key answers. One is that the US is fundamentally hostile to Islam and thus it does not trust Muslim people with democracy. Second, that the US is so obsessed with its drive for oil that it is ready to ignore its principles.

This leads to the superimposition of yet another narrative. According to this view all that the US says about liberal values is just a subterfuge to get Muslims to lower their guard. Rather, the US is simply an imperial western power that seeks to coercively dominate the Muslim world. US military forces in Muslim countries are seen as threatening and imposing America’s will. Here is an example from a focus group in Egypt.

M: How do you feel about the US military bases in the region, especially in the Gulf region?
– R1: We don’t like it…The existence of US military bases in any Arab country represents a threat to the Egyptian national security
– M: Let me see a show of hands, how many people sitting here perceive the US military bases as a threat to Egypt? [most raise hands] Why?
– R1: …These bases are there… to attack us… we’ll never trust the Americans
R2: The US is trying to influence things in Egypt…The military bases represent occupation of the Arab world again…
– R3: If it wants to control this area [the Arab world]… [The US must] have military forces ready to take military against any government in an Arab country that would react in a manner that is not in the US’s interests.
– M: So, the military bases of the US are there to threaten the countries in the region that do not do what America wants them to do….
– R3: Of course.
M: Does everyone here agree with this? [general agreement]

Al Qaeda has been effective in elaborating this narrative, portraying the US as continuous with the Crusaders. While most Muslims have many reservations about al Qaeda, most do resonate with the narrative that al Qaeda puts forward. In polls, large majorities in numerous countries say they agree with al Qaeda’s goals to keep Western values out of the Muslim world and to get the US to remove all its forces from the Muslim world.

So what has happened here? From a psychological perspective, the underlying tension that Muslims feel between their competing desires to assimilate liberal values and to preserve their Muslim identity has become externalized in the form of a conflict between the Muslim people and America.

This is problematic in a variety of ways. It strengthens radical Islamists, such as al Qaeda, who assert that there is no middle way; that to preserve Islam, the infidels, and all nontraditional ideas, must be forcefully driven out. Given that Islam itself at risk, they argue, every possible measure must be taken including the killing of civilians. Most Muslim think killing civilians is contrary to Islam, but still they do concur with the larger narrative of defending Islam against America and this lowers their resistance to al Qaeda.

Just as important, once the dialectical relation between traditional Islam and liberal ideas becomes projected onto the external conflict with the US, this interrupts the process of integration in the general society by shifting the focus away from the central process.

So what can the US do? Naturally any steps that the US takes will disrupt the status quo. Some may prefer the devil they know. Others may be pretty tired of it. But let us consider the options should the US want to change the current dynamic.

First, the US would need to take steps to diffuse the image of the US as coercively controlling the Muslim world. It may come as something of a surprise to Americans that many Muslims feel that the US controls most of what happens in the Muslim world. One can debate about whether this is actually true. But the perception is nonetheless there and can sometimes take extreme forms.

One of the reasons people have this perception is the extent of the US military footprint. It is not illogical for people to look around and ask, “Who has most of the military power?” and assume that that party is in control. Anything the US can do to lighten this footprint is likely to help reduce the impression of American domination.

Another possibility is for the US to refrain from the use of implied threats. Whenever the US says that ‘all options are on the table,’ it is heard as a threat to use military force to achieve American ends.

Yet another possibility is for the US to clearly state that it does not have a claim to other nations’ oil and that it respects the territorial rights of Middle East governments. Apparently, some people have interpreted the Carter Doctrine to mean that the US is committed to preserving access irrespective of the wishes of host governments. Naturally, this offends Muslims’ sense of dignity as well as challenges their sovereignty.

But perhaps the most fundamental step the US could take would to be trust the Muslim people with democracy. Polls show that a major source of Muslim anger at America is its perceived opposition to democracy in the Muslim world.

This perception of America as not trusting the Muslim people with democracy is the flip side of the perception of the US as seeking to control the Muslim world. A failure to trust the Muslim people is perceived as, and logically leads to, an effort to control. To convince Muslims that it is not trying to control them, the US must convince them that it trusts them.

This is not something that can be faked. Ultimately the US must make a decision about whether to trust the Muslim people to determine their fate–a decision that has not been clearly made.

One may argue that the Muslim people have to earn America’s trust. But this is not likely to happen under the current circumstances. Muslims find this notion both insulting and inconsistent with liberal principles, just as Americans would. They believe that self-determination is a right, not something that has to be earned.

Muslims conclude that American posture is driven by a mistrust of what the Muslim people might decide, in particular that they might decide to create an Islamist state. It is not hard to see how this is seen as an expression of fundamentally ant-Islamic attitudes in the US leadership.

So what it would mean to trust the Muslim people? Lacing diplomatic communications with references to the rights of Muslim people to democracy and self-determination would make a difference. When George W. Bush spoke in 2005 of a renewed commitment to democracy it had strong repercussions throughout the Muslim world.

Perhaps the most concrete change that would be called for would be for the US to change its stance toward moderate Islamist parties. While Islamist parties get mixed reviews among Muslim publics, large majorities see such parties as legitimate players in the political process. America’s suspicious and standoffish stance toward many of them, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, has contributed significantly to the perception that the US is anti-Islamic and denies Muslims the right to self-determination. Refusing to grant visas to highly regarded scholars who endorse Islamist ideas, even when they are also explicitly pro-democratic and anti-terrorist, is seen as discriminatory.

The Obama administration has largely continued the cool posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood of earlier administrations. When Obama spoke in Cairo in June 2009, he reportedly invited members of the Muslim Brotherhood to the speech. However in the speech itself, he implicitly reiterated the long-standing suspicion that Islamist groups attempting to participate in the democratic political process, would revert to authoritarianism once in office. At one point he curiously shifted to speaking in second person, as if he were addressing specific individuals in the lecture hall and said:

…you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise.

Many Muslims, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, find such comments frustrating. There are no cases when an Islamist party was elected through a democratic process and then became undemocratic. Thus, moderate Islamists may well feel that they are being treated as guilty until proven innocent. When Islamism, not violent radicalism, is targeted, then Islam itself appears to be the real target.

Finally in closing, I want to read from a transcript of a focus group. One may ask whether Muslim views of the US are so entrenched that there is little the US can do to affect them.

In the focus groups, people do say that in the past they felt that a warmth toward America and for its democratic ideals. The question is whether such feelings can reemerge.

In February 2008, I conducted a focus group in Pakistan just a few days after the election in which Pervez Musharraf was unseated. There was an interesting exchange in which some members of the focus group were first repeating standard statements about how America controls everything in Pakistan seemingly ignoring the results of the election. One said:

These orders that we get from the US, in my opinion, are all pre-planned and since it is such a powerful country, it can pressurize us into following their orders. For example they are so powerful that they can enforce or threaten people into voting for Musharraf.

Perplexed, I asked him, “Do you think the outcome of the elections is what America wanted?” With a slightly pugnacious tone, he answered, “Yes it’s possible.”

I then turned to the group and asked, “Do all of you feel that way?” There was an awkward pause and finally a respondent said:

No, I don’t feel that way. Previously I thought that all the elections were influenced by America. However, this time around I was in charge of one of the polling stations and discovered that what America wants doesn’t necessarily always happen and in fact what the people want happens. The policy should be according to the needs of the people.

Once again there was an uncomfortable silence. I persisted in asking others, “How many of you think that the outcome of the elections was something that America wanted? Please raise your hands.” Only two did. Another respondent came forward and said,

America wants that democracy in Pakistan to be strong and for the people to progress. America doesn’t want people to come and attack them.


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