Muslims Scant Cause for Respect

International Herald Tribune, December 20, 2002

Muslim rulers have built strategic partnerships with the decision-makers in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, just as Washington has backed these mostly authoritarian regimes in return for affordable oil or military cooperation. But there has been little effort by either side to base relations on the substantive foundation of issues that their people care about.

The unfavorable image of America in Arab and Muslim countries has been highlighted by several studies, notably the recent opinion survey by the Pew Research Center in association with the International Herald Tribune. A survey of American public opinion on foreign policy, published by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, showed that while the importance of key Islamic countries is recognized across the United States, Muslim states are not looked upon favorably.

For example, 61 percent of Americans consider Saudi Arabia an unreliable partner in the war against terrorism. The Chicago council developed a public opinion thermometer to gauge the degree of warmth that Americans feel toward various countries. Pakistan scored 31 and Saudi Arabia 33, compared with 76 for Britain, 60 for Japan and Mexico, 55 for Israel and 46 for India.

Just as public opinion surveys in the Muslim world point to the lack of support in the streets for U.S. policies, this survey showed that leading Muslim states attract little enthusiasm and sympathy in Middle America.

For genuine friendship, the United States must understand why Muslims resent its power, and Muslims must figure out why they cannot win America’s trust and respect. America needs to modify its foreign policy. The Muslim countries have to change the way they run things at home.

Muslim ideologues and U.S. neoconservatives alike would argue that the Muslim world and the West led by America are on a collision course. But according to the Chicago survey, only 27 percent of Americans think that a clash between Muslims and the West is inevitable. An encouraging 66 percent believe that common ground can be found and that the clash of civilizations can be avoided.

Middle America does not want the United States to take sides between Israel and the Palestinians. This weakens the argument of Muslim hard-liners that it is fair to hate America because of its support for Israel.

An overwhelming 71 percent of the respondents in the survey said the United States should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, against 25 percent who said that it should take Israel’s side. Only 1 percent wanted Washington to back the Palestinians.

Western civilization admires achievement and creativity. Muslims have fared poorly in both spheres since their encounter with Western ascendancy. The 56 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined GDP is less than that of France.

The 22 Arab countries, including the oil-exporting Gulf states, account for a combined GDP less than Spain’s.

Almost 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population are illiterate. Muslims are noticeably absent from the list of recent inventors or innovators in science and technology.

Muslim output in literature is abysmally low. The arts remain marginalized in most Muslim states. While ideas direct the course of power in the West, those in power control the flow of ideas in the Muslim world.

An example of the difference between the Muslim and Western worlds is the way each approaches religious controversy. Rabbis and priests write books and produce television shows to make their point, while Muslims riot in the streets or attack their opponent physically when faced with a perceived insult to their religion. As a result, the Muslim world is seen by the West as oil-rich but ideas-poor and certainly unworthy of admiration or respect.

Islam’s external enemies are the focus of most discourse in the Muslim world. Muslims have definitely suffered a setback from colonial rule. The injustice meted out to Palestinians, Chechens and Kashmiris under non-Muslim occupation is a real issue that needs to be tackled.

But the failure of Muslim societies to educate themselves, expand their economies and innovate cannot be attributed solely to the colonial experience or unresolved postcolonial disputes.