With much of the Islamic world protesting what is seen as an anti-Islamic movie, a lot of attention has been given to a perceived cultural divide between the West and Islam, a view which sees Muslims as not understanding what freedom of speech really means. This may or may not have merit, but before the recent protests there was already a great deal of resentment towards the US and the West that needed only a small spark to ignite. It seems much more appropriate to focus on this resentment than murky issues about free speech. It does not excuse the violence of extremists or say that the protesters are factually correct, but it is important to address the underlying issues.
A 2011 Gallup poll of majority Muslim countries found a correlation (.669) between "Approval of the Leadership of the US' and "how positively countries view Muslim-West relations." Gallup used what they call the Muslim-West Perceptions Index (MWPI), in which a higher index indicated a more positive view of the relations with the West. Despite the "clash of civilization" theory, religion is actually not a major factor in how Muslims perceive relations with the West. As the poll report states,
"In general, those in majority-Muslim countries who say religion is important rank
higher on the MWPI than those in majority-Muslim countries who say religion is
not important. In the West, this is reversed, with people who see religion as important
occupying a lower position on the MWPI, and people who do not see religion as
important occupying a higher position."
So if US leadership is a key factor about Muslim views of the West, what are their concerns? In 2010 the Brookings Institute did a poll in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (the 2011 version is not functioning on their site or at least not on my computer so 2010 will have to do). When asked "What two steps by the United States would improve your views of the United States the most?" the the answers were as follows:
Israel-Palestine peace agreement: 54%
Withdrawal from Iraq: 45%
Stopping Aid to Israel: 43%
Withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula: 35%
"Protecting Israel" and "Controlling Oil" were the top two reasons given as what was "driving American policy in the Middle East" at 49% and 45%, respectively. Tied for third at 33% were "Weakening the Muslim World" and "Preserving Regional and Global Dominance." By enormous margins, Israel and the United States are viewed as the "biggest threats to you" at 88% and 77%.
Surely Islamic extremism takes advantage of the concerns of the Muslim public, just as white supremacists take advantage of white poverty in the US. I should add that there are no doubt grievances internal to many Muslim countries, especially since the Arab Spring has altered the political context of the Middle East. However, we in the US should address our share of their grievances, since they are very real. It is not enough to address Islamic extremism, just as arresting violent white supremacists does not get rid of the ideology. Police and/or military action can be necessary in both cases, but we must also address the underlying problems.
I can hardly due justice to those grievances here, except to mention a few points. It is unrealistic to expect the Muslim world to not have a negative view of the US when it arms Israel to the teeth and will not push for any kind of settlement freeze. How can the US possibly be seen as an honest broker when it is arming one side? Let's also consider recent history. The US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and with Israel has threatened Iran, which is right between the two countries. Put aside any arguments about whether those wars were justified and just look at it from the point view of the average Arab. Can we really expect them to not be angry at the US? Are they supposed to welcome the military ventures of the most powerful military in the world and its number one recipient of military aid? However grotesquely these observations can be distorted by Islamic radicals, I don't think it is hard to understand why the Arab world harbors resentment towards the US and the broader West. We are missing the crux of the issue (as are the Muslim protesters for that matter) if we only focus on issues of free speech.
See my previous post for data from the 2011 Brookings Institute poll.
Adam Weiss blogs at politicalcreativity.net.