In an insightful essay in the Washington Monthly, Kenneth Bailen discusses a number of conversations with purported supporters of Al Qaeda in Islamic countries, and polls on the same topic. His basic conclusion is that much of this support is “soft” and reflects anger at the perceived anti-Muslim bias of the United States rather than any support for the agenda of Al Qaeda. In fact, these people tend to oppose terrorism in their own countries, and support policies such as an iindependent judiciary, a free press, free elections and advancing economic prospects. In a poll in Pakistan, despite purported support for Bin Laden, a mere 1 percent would support an Al Qaeda-style party in the polls. What is going on? Bailen answers:
“Our polls show that the anger Muslims around the world feel towards the United States is not primarily directed at our people or values—even those who say they support bin Laden don’t, for the most part, “hate us for our freedoms,” as President Bush has claimed. Rather, what drives Islamic public opinion is a pervasive perception that the United States and the West are hostile towards Islam. This perception, right or wrong, is fed by a variety of American actions, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the overarching global war on terror. These actions are seen as profoundly disrespectful and humiliating because they amount to America forcing its will on the Muslim world.”
The actions that tend to make America popular are remarkably straightforward: humanitarian relief (US popularity in Indonesia jumped remarkably after the tsunami), more visas to study and work in the US, and better trade links. What irks people in Muslim countries is not only the actions of the US (the occupation of Iraq, the tilt toward Israel, the torture), but the rhetoric– the increasing anti-Islamic bombast, the restrictions on visas and the domestic xenophobia, and even the democracy-promoting agenda. On the latter point, while most Saudis desire basic freedoms, they do not want the US to dictate to them. What matters is to overcome the perception of a lack of respect.
And finally, what will play better in the Muslim world? Obama’s reassuring message, or McCain’s more-of-the-same codpiece diplomacy?