The wave of anti-American protests and riots across the Muslim world to which we were treated in mid-election season, and the assassination of a U.S. ambassador and three members of his staff, have revived the “why do they hate us?” debate, which will not go away merely because the election has passed. Why are there such high levels of extremism in many Muslim societies, and why is there so much anger toward the United States?
For some on the left and the isolationist right, the answer is clear: It’s our fault. The United States and our allies, the argument goes, have caused Muslims vast suffering; no wonder Muslims seize on any flimsy pretext to vent their anger. Whatever one thinks of United States policies, however, the America-blaming is simplistic and misguided – and dangerously myopic about the danger of radical Islamism.
The supposed offenses of the United States – as laid out, for instance, by journalist Glenn Greenwald – involve supporting Israel over the Palestinians; backing oppressive regimes in Muslim countries; and waging wars, including the “war on terror” that still kills civilians in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
These policies are strongly unpopular with Muslims around the world. Is the anger, however, driven mainly by concern for Muslim lives and welfare, or by more ideological motives? We see little outrage over the carnage in Syria, for example, where as many as 30,000 may have died since last year’s uprising began. In Pakistan, terrorists have killed over 14,000 civilians and more than 4,500 security personnel since 2004. (The civilian toll from U.S. drone strikes is estimated at between 482 and 832.) Countries such as China, which viciously represses its Muslim minority, or Russia, which killed at least 100,000 in Chechnya, backed a Muslim-slaughtering regime in Serbia, and blocks any effective action against Syria, are not the focus of much Muslim anger.
The claim that Islamist radicals – and ordinary people who, while not endorsing terror, support some of their goals – “hate us for our freedoms” has been mocked as a self-serving clichÃ©. In rebuttal, critics cite a 2004 poll in which Muslims in several countries overwhelmingly condemned the United States’ Mideast policies and the Iraq war, but often approved of such American values as democracy and freedom.
Other studies, however, paint a different picture. In a 2009 survey by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, more Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia agreed with the Islamist goal “to keep Western values out of Islamic countries” than with the goal of getting the United States to stop favoring Israel. In Egypt, both goals were endorsed by nearly 90 percent. A 2011 survey in Yemen found less hostility to United States military power – whose impact was seen as “very bad” by 46 percent – than to the cultural influence of the United States (56 percent). While nearly half of Yemenis favored security assistance from the United States to their government, over 90 percent felt that “Western culture corrupts Muslims.”
The real war is within the Islamic world itself, between those who favor modernity – secular government, individual freedom, women’s liberation – and those seeking to uphold the traditional social and religious order. This conflict is hardly unique to Islam, but, for complex historical and cultural reasons, fundamentalist forces in many Muslim societies are far more powerful and radical than in the West. The radicals exploit the problems of poverty and corruption to gain support; but these problems (all too common in other parts of the world) are not the primary cause of extremism.
The United States provides a convenient target for modernization anxieties. In a 2011 paper, political scientists Lisa Blaydes of Stanford University and Drew Linzer of Emory University concluded that anti-Americanism in Muslim countries is most reliably predicted by conflict between Islamists and secularists and by anti-American rhetoric from Islamist elites.
Religious zealotry is no fiction. Policies of the United States did not cause the edict for the murder of “blasphemous” novelist Salman Rushdie. Policies of the United States are not responsible for the fact that, last year, a Pakistani provincial governor, Salman Taseer, was murdered after criticizing blasphemy laws and speaking in support of a Christian woman sentenced to death for an alleged slur on Muhammad – or that the assassination was cheered by many clerics and politicians.
Unfortunately, America-blaming can become an excuse for the worst of intolerance. Recently, Patheos.com, a website on religious issues, reported on the case of an Egyptian atheist blogger arrested for blasphemy. Some commenters argued that this action was understandable, since atheists were positioning themselves as allies of the Muslim-victimizing West.
What next? An explanation of how the United States is to blame for the Spanish Inquisition?