By Amar C. Bakshi
Last week, the Pew Research Center released its annual survey of global public opinion, including a look at how seven majority-Muslim nations — Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey — view the United States and President Obama. The responses prompted a slew of U.S. newspapers to run virtually identical headlines declaring the “Muslim world” was “disappointed” with President Obama and “leery” of America’s global role. The Washington Post announced “Obama’s Muslim Outreach Faltering.”
Yet Obama still remains far more popular than his predecessor. Last year after the election of President Obama, Muslims around the world expressed significantly more confidence in the U.S. President — an increase of 38% in Indonesia, 24% in Jordan, and 31% in Turkey. Today, confidence in him and favorability ratings of the United States have dipped by several percentage points, kicking off a debate in the blogosphere over whether this decline was inevitable or the result of Obama Administration policy failures. This debate misses a far more important point.
In its focus on measuring U.S. popularity and Obama’s performance, recent coverage has overlooked the elephant in the data: the high percentage of respondents in Muslim majority nations who express “very unfavorable” views (the lowest possible response category) of Americans, the United States, and its impact on the world and have done so consistently for years and years. For the past eight years, around 55 percent of Pakistanis have held a very unfavorable view of the United States. Today, about 60 percent of Turks hold a very unfavorable view of the U.S., and the trend line is not improving. In Egypt, nearly 50 percent have a very unfavorable view of the U.S. – the worst rating since Pew started polling in Egypt in 2006. Neither the election of President Obama nor his appearance in Cairo seemed to have had any affect on these dismal “very unfavorable” figures.
Swings in “favorability” tell us how U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East or Afghanistan is being judged year by year. But the “very unfavorable” rating points to the large number of Muslims who distrust the U.S. almost no matter what it does on the world stage. The former gives a glimpse of the battle; the latter reports the state of the war.
(Learn more about Muslim beliefs and practices at Patheos.com)
Deep distrust among many Muslims makes this Administration’s outreach particularly challenging. The White House Entrepreneurship Summit, the State Department’s Science Envoys, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s polio eradication partnership — all worthy initiatives — can come across to many Muslims as America trying to buy goodwill on the cheap, like BP building an aquarium after the oil spill.
Before seeking to be loved, the United States must first ensure it is not so widely hated.
But what can be done to influence those with the most intractably unfavorable views of the U.S.? The first step is to identify and examine their hardened anti-American narratives. Future polls should break down Muslim respondents by age, gender, denomination, and socio-economic background. Surveys should track respondents’ views of America’s motivations, not just whether they believe the U.S. takes account of their interests. The U.S. also needs more reporting from the ground on how and why Muslims feel the way they do.
The next step is to craft strategies to puncture the most prevalent anti-American narratives — such as the U.S. being at war with Muslims, or occupying Iraq to seize oil and dominate the region. This means taking actions to counter these views and aggressively publicizing these actions. The U.S. must promote stories that cause the most skeptical Muslims to pause and reconsider their views — stories such as ongoing U.S. efforts to withdraw from Iraq, the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Syria, and America’s prolonged attempt to foster dialogue with Iran.
The U.S. should also develop a global “Fight the Smears” campaign to nip new conspiracy theories in the bud, such as charges that the polio eradication campaign is in fact an attempt to sterilize Muslim populations. During the campaign the President proposed an “America’s Voice Corps” to “recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with — and listen to — the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.” This is a very good idea, and it is time to realize it.
In the future, the U.S. must take more time to explain to Muslim across the world why we do what we do. The fact that the Bush Administration failed to articulate a clear rationale for the war in Iraq, either before or during the conflict, opened a huge lacuna that has been filled with wild conspiracy theories. This in turn has helped build up staggering distrust of the U.S. in Jordan, Turkey, and other allies.
In Cairo last year, President Obama delivered a sweeping address to Muslims around the world calling for a new partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect, commitment to universal values, and greater engagement between citizens from Kansas to Cairo. The challenge for this Administration has been, and remains, to translate that vision into innovative ways to engage Muslim populations who are most estranged from the United States.
Leveraging America’s comparative advantages in business, technology, education, and science is an important start. But there are millions of people who see any U.S. good deed with a jaundiced eye. America does not need to sell its strengths to Muslims, who already respect its prowess. It needs to persuade Muslims who deeply distrust the United States to question their preconceptions. It must puncture hardened anti-American narratives to pry open space for dialogue where none currently exists.
Amar C. Bakshi is a foreign affairs student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020. Previously, he reported for The Washington Post online about How the World Sees America.