Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world

By Saad Hafiz:

Many Americans are baffled and angered by the deep-set anti-Americanism prevailing in the Muslim world. Some Americans see it as an expression of a malevolent ill disposition that goes beyond the pale of reason, revealing the inherent venality, weakness and instability of Muslims. In this worldview, the US is the beacon of freedom and democracy and a major aid provider, which makes it especially confounding that it would be the target of Muslim rage. The genuine fears about extremism and violence in the Muslim world continue to play a role in driving these views. Former President George W Bush captured a widespread concern when he said, “Like most Americans, I just cannot believe the vitriolic hatred of the United States because I know how good we are.”

There are some western scholars who attribute anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world to hatred, envy, or prejudice. In their view, the driving forces behind opposition to America are the disposition of people who embrace anti-democratic, anti-market, and anti-modern ideologies. Such sentiments of opposition and rejection are allegedly rife, more than ever, in Muslim countries. “More than anything else,” writes historian William McNeill, “reaffirmation of Islam, whatever its specific sectarian form, means the repudiation of European and American influence upon local society, politics, and morals.” This body of opinion suggests that no rapprochement between Americans and Muslims is possible, and that the deeply ingrained mistrust of the United States and resistance to US power is going to remain a permanent reality of international politics. It supports the popular perception that anti-Americanism is a cohesive and undifferentiated trend, striding across the Muslim world. It also places the onus entirely on Muslims to change as the US is made out to be the most pristine incarnation of the ideals of freedom, democracy, and opportunity, a view that many Americans themselves do not share.

The US-Muslim divide can also be looked at in a different context offered by political scientist Joseph Nye. Nye described the common perception of the US in two dimensions: a polity dimension, and a policy dimension. The first dimension refers to the US as a societal, cultural, and political arrangement premised on freedom, opportunity, and individual achievement, while the second dimension is centred on the political actions the United States pursues in the international arena. These two dimensions are linked under the concept of “soft power”, which is the ability to get others — other countries, other nations, other societies, and other people — to want what the US wants. But it is power by co-option, instead of power by coercion; it is premised on cultural values and political ideology; it operates through persuasion and example; and it is perpetuated within a network of institutions that define rules and modes of legitimate behaviour. It is a sublime form of power that American society possesses in profusion above and beyond the power resources — military, economic, and technological — of its government.

The fact that US foreign policy is often seen globally as hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to the opinion of others, or based on a narrow approach to national interests, has undermined the US’s ‘soft’ power. The lingering legacy of anti-Americanism in Latin America can be attributed to the US interference and coup-mongering, where countries are still trying to deal with the US-organised tyrannies and terrors of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, there is deep resentment in the Muslim world about US foreign policy and its double standards, including the multi-decade support of dictatorships, and the US’s slavish and unremitting support for Israel, irrespective of that latter country’s behaviour and conduct.

The concept of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power could explain why the general Muslim public based on recent polls can get along with the US when it means democracy, movies, education, people, and science, but hates the US when it pursues foreign policies and unilateral actions using ‘hard’ military power in the Muslim world. The same polls indicate that Muslims would support specific features of democracy, including institutions such as a free press and multi-party elections that serve as cornerstones of western democratic systems. Therefore, while many Muslims continue to oppose US policies and remain uneasy about its power, many also want to see their own countries adopt some central features of American society.

While the task of building bridges between the US and the Muslim world remains daunting, perhaps the way forward is the reinvigoration of US ‘soft’ power at the expense of gung-ho ‘American exceptionalism’ pursued in the Muslim world in the recent past. As Professor Barry Buzan notes, not only has the US’s capacity for global leadership been weakened by the rise of emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil and the US economic crisis, but also because “there is a general turn within international society against hegemony and therefore against the global leadership role itself.” The challenge for the US then is that it has “to learn to live in a more pluralist international society where it is no longer the sole superpower but merely the first among equals.”

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