On US Image Decline in the Muslim World

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Seven years after 9/11, hostility towards the US remains at shocking levels in the Muslim world where the US has followed a double standard policy. Its relationship with the Muslim nations has been based on a kind of hegemony which had taken shape in the Cold War era and continued in the post-Cold War period.

During the Cold War era the US followed the Truman doctrine of containment to limit and prevent Soviet expansionism. The US endeavored to develop its presence in different parts of the world including Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East, to contain the Soviet expansion.

The strategically located Arab nations of the Middle East were important to the United States for their large oil and gas reserves while the non-Arabs countries of the region such as Iran and Turkey were also important for the US due to their strategic position in helping the United States to block the Soviet influence.

During the Soviet invasion/occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) the US armed and trained the so-called Mujahideen groups to fight the communist ‘infidels’. Tellingly, some of the groups such as Osama Bin Laden that were fighting against the Soviet invaders originally received their training from the CIA during that period.

The so-called Mujahideen received approximately $3.5 billion in arms and other aid from the CIA, regardless of their political orientation or Islamist zeal. In this way, the most radical Islamic group – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party — received two thirds of American aid over two years. Yet for a long time, it did not seem to worry the CIA that Hekmatyar’s party was openly not only anti-Soviet but also anti-American, and that it was responsible for massacres, torture and just about every conceivable human rights abuse, quite apart from the fact that Hekmatyar was also trafficking in heroin on the side. If there is such a thing as the classic fundamentalist leader, straight out of Western stories, then it is Hekmatyar.

Despite this Washington had no reservations, but only arms and money to offer. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Of all the Afghan Mujahideen groups, his was the best organized and militarily most powerful — the natural partner for an anti-Soviet campaign. It was only some time after the USSR had withdrawn from Afghanistan, in fact only when the USA and the Soviet Union cooperated closely in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1990-1 that the USA distanced itself from Hekmatyar’s party. On February 19, 2003 the United States State Department and the United States Treasury Department jointly designated Hekmatyar a "global terrorist". (1)

At the end of the 1980s, when the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan amid the crack-up of the Soviet Union, the volunteer holy warriors did not go home to open bakeries or flower shops. Determined to destroy their own governments and Western-corrupted societies, as they saw them, they decided to attack and destabilize these institutions. There were estimated 5,000 trained Saudis, 3,000 Yemenis, 2,800 Algerians, 2,000 Egyptians and perhaps 2,000 Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Iranians and others. This gives credence to the argument that much of today’s “Islamic fundamentalist” activity is the work of groups funded for years not by Iran but by the United States, which kept a number of Islamic groups going throughout the Cold War era. (2)

To sum up, during the Cold War era, the US national interests in the Middle East seemed to require excluding Soviet power, preserving secure access to the region’s oil and keeping strategic trade routes open. For these purposes, the United States supported autocratic, undemocratic and repressive but pro-Western Arab and non-Arab ruling elites. For example, in 1953, the US toppled the democratically elected Iranian government of Prime Minister Dr. Musaddiq and reinstalled the deposed King Muhammad Reza Shah; During 1980s, the US supported the autocratic and undemocratic regimes of President General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan and President General Jaafar Nimeiry in the Sudan, both of them exploited Islam to maintain their grip over power.

Not surprisingly, the demise of the Cold War involving the US and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s left military strategists in the West searching for a new enemy. To borrow Richard Conder, author of the Munchurian Candidate: "Now that the communists have been put to sleep, we are going to have to invent another terrible threat." Former US Secretary of Defense, McNamara, in his 1989 testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, stated that defense spending could safely be cut in half over five years. For the Pentagon it was a simple choice: either find new enemies or cut defense spending. Topping the list of potential bogeymen were the Yellow Peril, the alleged threat to US economic security emanating from the East Asia, and the so-called Green Peril (green representing Islam). The Pentagon selected "Islamic fundamentalism" and "rogue states" as the new bogeymen. (3)

Jochen Hippler corroborates this view when he says: “The West no longer has the Soviet Union or communism to serve as enemies justifying expensive and extensive military apparatuses. It was in the mid-1980s at the very latest that the search began for new enemies to justify arms budgets and offensive military policies, at first as part of the communist threat and then in its place. First the ‘War on Drugs’, the somewhat absurd and naturally failed attempt to solve New York’s drug problem by naval exercise off the coast of South America and military operations in Bolivia, then ‘Terrorism’, a term applied to real terrorists as well as to various unpleasant freedom movements in the Third World which (of course) demanded military responses, were two such attempts during the 1980s.” (4)

One could multiply examples to prove the point but I believe it is not necessary. It will suffice to say that in the absence of the Soviet Union the West, particularly the United States, needed to introduce a new enemy to rationalize its military policies and more importantly as B. Tibi has argued to “ensure the continuity of its political and military unity and hegemony.” (5)

Consequently, demonizing of Islam began in the post-Cold War period with many ‘experts’ and political leaders trying to define Islam as a new threat or an ‘enemy’ of the West. M. Rodinson, the author of “The Western image and Western studies of Islam”, for example, has pointed out that “the Muslims were a threat to Western Christendom long before they became a problem.” (6) In a 1990 address Bush Senior Vice President, Dan Quayle, listed Islam with Nazism and Communism as the challenges the Western civilization must undertake to meet collectively. (7) In a similar tone in February 1995 the former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General, W. Claes, warned that Islamic fundamentalism is as much a threat to the Western alliance as communism once was. (8)

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have presented an “opportunity” for Washington to attempt to constrain the emerging complexity of the emerging international system as a whole by shifting international focus to the relatively narrow, but no less significant, issue-area of ‘anti-terrorism’. Since then, the US has made consistent and persuasive, indeed unremitting, attempts to reduce many other items on the international political and economic agenda to an ‘anti-terrorist’ essence. (9)

With regards to US relations with the Islamic World, the 9/11 attacks have created a new wave of anti-Islam movement in the USA and even other Western countries. At the beginning President Bush tried to identify (the US war on terror) a crusade however, it was quickly reacted by the Muslim world and some non-Muslim nations as well. But as it has been stated the ‘war on terror’ was not limited to Afghanistan and Bin Laden’s group (Al Qaeda) it would be continued against Muslim and non-Islamic countries that the America considered to be supporter of terrorism (You are with us or with enemy). Based on this statement Bush characterized Iraq, Iran and North Korea ‘axis of evil’.(10)

The US ‘war against terror’ since 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as incarceration and torture of hundreds of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay US military prison in Cuba, not only created a negative feeling toward the US but a new perception of American intentions. There now seems to be a perception that the US has entered into a war against Islam itself.

Since 9/11, foreign public opinion polls conducted by the State Department and private firms and organizations have shown that negative attitudes toward the United States have generally grown worse in many countries around the world, particularly in the Muslim world.

Not surprisingly the World Public Opinion Organization survey of 2007 finds negative views toward the US government even though the governments of the countries surveyed, by and large, have a positive relationship with the US government. Most negative were the Egyptians—93% expressed an unfavorable view with 86% very unfavorable. In Morocco, 76% had an unfavorable view with 49% very unfavorable. In Pakistan, 67% had an unfavorable view with 49% very unfavorable. The most moderate responses were in Indonesia where 66% did have an unfavorable view but a more modest 16% had a very unfavorable view. (11)

Why Do They Hate Us?

Why do they hate us? President George Bush posed this question to the American public shortly after 9/11 terrorist attacks. And in a strong affirmation of the power of propaganda, he replied: “They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Tellingly, the presidential rhetoric was exposed by the 2007 Gallup survey of 500,000 Muslims in more than 35 Islamic states. Only about 7 per cent of Muslims condone terrorist attacks, but none of these "politically radicalized" gave religious justification for their beliefs, instead voicing fears that the West and the United States are seeking to occupy and dominate the Islamic world.

The Gallup poll findings are not surprising. President Bush’s rhetoric – Why do they hate us? – was dehumanizing the enemy which is the first unwritten rule of war. To dehumanize, the enemy is portrayed as rude, crude and uncivilized. He is the other. He is not human. He is irrational.

Since a group stripped of its humanity is not seen as having human worth, they have no human rights. Such a demonized, out-group is not deserving of the protections that other human groups are entitled under international law and conventions. Such a development helps powerful governments and military alliances, and their media outlets, to justify the bombing and killing of civilians, and the ignoring of the human rights of the demonized group. (Burchfield cited by Erin S. LaPorte, The Criminal Race)

Once demonized and stripped of their humanity, it not only makes it easier for the battlefield solider to kill the “faceless, non-human enemy,” it is also easier to indiscriminately kill any member of “the enemy.” (Sam Keen cited by Erin S. LaPorte)

The “war on terror” was premised on this key question: why do they hate us? The common answer from Washington is that Muslim ‘radicals’ hate our way of life, our freedom and our democracy. It means that Muslims do not believe in freedom and democracy, in other words they are primitive people. After stripping Muslims from their humanity it was possible for us to indiscriminately kill them in Afghanistan and Iraq. (12)

And finally, it will not be too much to say that the horrible US abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison of Iraq were possible after dehumanizing the Muslims.

The Gallup Poll results are outlined in the book titled: Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Based on the largest and most in-depth study of its kind, this book perhaps presents the first ever data-based analysis of the points of view of more than 90% of the global Muslim community. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations (approximately 1.3 billion Muslims). Here are the key findings of the Gallup poll: (13)

While many believe anti-Americanism is tied to deep West-East religious and cultural differences, the data contradict these views. When asked what they admired most about the West, many Muslims – both politically radicalized and moderates – say they admire the West’s technology, freedom of speech, and value system of hard work.

In contrast, 57 percent of Americans when asked what they most admire about Muslim societies offer two responses: “Nothing” and “I don’t know.”

And even more surprising, the politically radicalized are more likely than moderates to associate Arab/Islamic nations with an eagerness to have better relationships with the West: Fifty-eight percent of the “politically radicalized” (versus 44 percent of moderates) expressed this.

Finally, no significant difference exists between the percentage of the politically radicalized and moderates who said: “better understanding between the West and Arab/Islamic cultures concerns me a lot.”

"The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why?"

Tellingly the Gallup poll findings were confirmed by a US congressional report of June 2008 titled "The Decline in America’s Reputation: Why?" (14)

The report finds that unilateral behavior by the Bush administration, a lack of contact with Americans and the "perceived war on Islam" contributed to America’s unfavorable image in many nations.

According to Subcommittee Chairman Bill Delahunt: "The data presented at these hearings make it clear that people in other nations don’t "hate us because of our values" – but rather they are disappointed with us because we aren’t always true to those values."

The report pointed out that in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attack there was world-wide sympathy and support for the United States that was best summed up in the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde—Nous sommes tous Americains. (“We are all Americans now.”)

Since then, polls conducted by the U.S. Government and respected private firms have revealed a precipitous decline in favorability toward the United States and its foreign policy. The generally positive ratings from the 1950’s to 2000 moved to generally negative after 2002. As the very first witness in a 10-hearing series with pollsters and regional analysts told the Subcommittee—“We have never seen numbers this low.” The reversal is unprecedented and widespread:

A 45-percentage point drop in favorability in Indonesia; 41 in Morocco; 40 in Turkey; and 27 in the United Kingdom;

Among Muslims in Nigeria, favorable opinion fell 33 points, from 71 percent to 38 percent, within an eight-month period;

A 26-point increase in Europe of the view that U.S. leadership in world affairs is undesirable;

Unfavorability rose to 82 percent in Arab countries and 86 percent of Latin American elites now rate U.S. relations negatively; and

83 percent of countries in 2002 had a plurality of citizens judging the United States favorably; by 2006 only 23 percent of countries had a plurality saying that U.S. influence is positive.

What happened? Why, as the question is often posed, do they hate us?

Dr. James Zogby, who conducts polls in Muslim countries for Zogby International, expressed this in a nutshell to the Subcommittee: “It’s the policies, stupid.”

Dr. Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, got to the heart of the matter when he noted: “Simply look at the polls that have been conducted in the Islamic world over the last 15 years. Inevitably, large majorities in most Muslim countries admire the way Americans live. Inevitably, in an 85–90 percent rate, they hate the impact of our policies in the Islamic world.”

The committee hearings led to the following compelling conclusions:

Finding 1: It’s true: U.S. approval ratings have fallen to record lows in nearly every region of the world. Generally positive ratings from the 1950’s to 2000 have moved to generally negative ratings since 2002.

Finding 2: It’s the policies: Opposition to specific U.S. policies, rather than to American values or people, has driven this decline. The key policies are the invasion and occupation of Iraq; support for repressive governments worldwide; a perceived lack of even-handedness in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; and torture and abuse of prisoners in violation of treaty obligations.

Finding 3: It’s the perception of hypocrisy: Disappointment and bitterness arise from the perception that the proclaimed American values of democracy, human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law have been selectively ignored by successive administrations when American security or economic considerations are in play.

Finding 4: It’s the unilateralism: A recent pattern of ignoring international consensus, particularly in the application of military power, has led to a great deal of anger and fear of attack. This in turn is transforming disagreement with U.S. policies into a broadening and deepening anti-Americanism, a trend noted by the Government Accountability Office.

Finding 5: It’s the perceived war on Islam: The combination of all of the previous findings has created a growing belief in the Muslim world that the United States is using the “war on terror” as a cover for its attempts to destroy Islam.

For decades, polls in the Muslim world and the statements of Muslim leaders have shown a variety of resentments about US policies. Muslims share the worldwide view that the US does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy. There have also been specific complaints that the US favors Israel over the Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole, that the US exploits the Middle East for its oil and that it hypocritically supports non-democratic governments that accommodate its interests. These attitudes persist. (15)

But now there is also a new feeling about the US that has emerged in the wake of 9-11. This is not so much an intensification of negative feelings toward the US as much as a new perception of American intentions. There now seems to be a perception that the US has entered into a war against Islam itself. (16) More than 70 per cent of Egyptians, Indonesians, Moroccans and Pakistanis believe that the United States is trying to weaken and divide the Islamic world, according to a survey by the World Public Opinion Organization released on April 23, 2007.

It is a harsh reality that tensions between the Islamic world and the West arise from conflicts over political power and interests and not from differences of religion and culture.

Majority of the people in Muslim and western countries believe that Islam-West division is worsening while each side thinks the other disrespects their culture, according to a report on Muslim-Western relations released on January 21, 2008 in Davos, Switzerland.

The report, titled "Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue," conducted by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Georgetown University, looks at how Muslim and Western societies perceive and relate to each other at the political, social, economic and cultural levels.

In the preface of the report, John J. DeGioia, President, Georgetown University, points out: “A better future for Muslim-West relations at a global level and within national societies depends on more than dialogue. It demands progress on outstanding conflicts, including an Israeli-Palestinian peace that combines security with self-determination. It also demands greater stability, prosperity and democracy throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South, Central and Southeast Asia. A better future necessitates equal citizenship for Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe, North America and around the world, marked by broad-based economic growth, upward mobility and access to education and healthcare.”

When asked how the West could improve relations with the Muslim world, the most often offered response to Gallup Polls was: respect Islam, stop treating us like we’re inferior, stop degrading Muslims in your media as well as a desire for assistance with technology, jobs and economic development. (17)

To borrow John L. Esposito, diagnosing terrorism as a symptom and Islam as the problem, though popular in some circles, is flawed and has serious risks with dangerous repercussions. It confirms extremist beliefs and fears, alienates the ‘moderate’ Muslim majority, and reinforces a belief that the war against ‘global terrorism’ is really war against Islam. Whether one is ‘radical’ or ‘moderate’, this negative attitude is a widespread perception. (18)

– Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective – www.amperspective.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: asghazali@gmail.com.


1. "US designates Hekmatyar as a terrorist", Dawn February 20, 2003.
2. Islam in the Post-Cold War Era by Abdus Sattar Ghazali – 1999
3. Ibid.
4. Jochen Hippler, The Next Threat: Western Perception of Islam, Pluto Press London 1995, p-4
5. B. Tibi, The challenge of fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, Berkeley: University of California, 1998, p-2.
6. M. Rodinson, “The Western image and Western studies of Islam”, In J., Schacht and C.E. Bosworth, (eds.), The Legacy of Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 9-62.
7. L. John, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, Oxford: OUP, 1992, p-324.
8. The Guardian, UK., February 3, 1995
9. US Policy towards the Islamic World by Enayatollah Yazdani – Turkish Journal of International Relations, Summer-Fall 2008
10. Ibid.
11. The World Public Opinion Organization surveys were conducted between December 9, 2006 and February 15, 2007 using in-home interviews. In Morocco (1,000 interviews), Indonesia (1,141 interviews), and Pakistan (1,243 interviews) national probability samples were conducted covering both urban and rural areas. However, Pakistani findings reported here are based only upon urban respondents (611 interviews); rural respondents were unfamiliar with many of the issues in the survey. In Egypt, the sample (1,000 interviews) was an urban sample drawn probabilistically from seven governorates.
12. The US Department of Defense has not released a composite estimate of Afghan and Iraqi civilian deaths in US and coalition forces operations. According to various estimates at least 832,962 people have been killed, and 1,590,895 seriously injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some 90 civilians — among them 60 children — were killed in air strikes on a village in western Afghanistan on August 28, 2008, according to a statement issued by the United Nations mission in Kabul, making it almost certainly the deadliest case of civilian casualties caused by any United States military operation in Afghanistan since 2001.
13. The book – Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think – is authored by John L. Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, and Dalia Mogahed, Gallup’s executive director of Muslim studies.
14. The Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight – part of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs – issued the report on June 11, 2008 after ten hearings on the decline of US image.
15. Testimony of Dr. Steven Kull, Director Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), University of Maryland and Editor, World Public Opinion Organization before House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight on May 17, 2007.
16. Ibid.
17. Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.
18. Ibid.

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