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The U.S. and the Global Struggle of Ideas

How can the United States counter anti-Americanism — especially in the Muslim world?

July 30, 2004

How can the United States counter anti-Americanism — especially in the Muslim world?

The United States is faced with more widespread resentment across the Muslim world than at any point in history. The United States is faced with more widespread resentment across the Muslim world than at any point in history. The 9/11 Commission examines the ways and means by which the country can counter the corrosive effects of this anti-Americanism.

The United States is heavily engaged in the Muslim world and will be for many years to come.

This American engagement is resented. Polls in 2002 found that among America's friends, like Egypt — the recipient of more U.S. aid for the past 20 years than any other Muslim country — only 15% of the population had a favorable opinion of the United States.

In Saudi Arabia, the number was 12%. And two-thirds of those surveyed in 2003 in countries from Indonesia to Turkey (a NATO ally) were very or somewhat fearful that the United States may attack them.

Support for the United States has plummeted. Polls taken in Islamic countries after 9/11 suggested that many or most people thought the United States was doing the right thing in its fight against terrorism.

Few people saw popular support for al Qaeda. Half of those surveyed said that ordinary people had a favorable view of the United States.

By 2003, polls showed that the bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world. Negative views of the United States among Muslims — which had been largely limited to countries in the Middle East — have spread.

Since last summer, favorable ratings for the United States have fallen from 61% to 15% in Indonesia — and from 71% to 38% among Muslims in Nigeria.

Many of these views are at best uninformed about the United States and, at worst, informed by cartoonish stereotypes, the coarse expression of a fashionable "Occidentalism" among intellectuals who caricature U.S. values and policies.

Local newspapers and the few influential satellite broadcasters — like al Jazeera — often reinforce the jihadist theme that portrays the United States as anti-Muslim.

The small percentage of Muslims who are fully committed to Osama bin Laden's version of Islam are impervious to persuasion.
It is among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims that we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy and opportunity — even though our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers.

Muslims themselves will have to reflect upon such basic issues as the concept of jihad, the position of women and the place of non-Muslim minorities.

The United States can promote moderation, but cannot ensure its ascendancy. Only Muslims can do this.

The setting is difficult. The combined GDP of the 22 countries in the Arab League is less than the GDP of Spain. 40% of adult Arabs are illiterate, two-thirds of them women.

One-third of the broader Middle East lives on less than two dollars a day. Less than 2% of the population has access to the Internet. The majority of older Arab youth have expressed a desire to emigrate to other countries, particularly those in Europe.

In short, the United States has to help defeat an ideology, not just a group of people — and we must do so under difficult circumstances. How can the United States and its friends help moderate Muslims combat the extremist ideas?

The United States and its friends can stress educational and economic opportunity. The United Nations has rightly equated "literacy as freedom."

The international community is moving toward setting a concrete goal — to cut the Middle East region's illiteracy rate in half by 2010, targeting women and girls and supporting programs for adult literacy.

Unglamorous help is needed to support the basics, such as textbooks that translate more of the world's knowledge into local languages and libraries to house such materials. Education about the outside world, or other cultures, is weak.

Economic openness is essential. Terrorism is not caused by poverty. Indeed, many terrorists come from relatively well-off families. Yet when people lose hope, when societies break down, when countries fragment, the breeding grounds for terrorism are created.

Backward economic policies and repressive political regimes slip into societies that are without hope, where ambition and passions have no constructive outlet.

The policies that support economic development and reform also have political implications. Economic and political liberties tend to be linked.

Commerce, especially international commerce, requires ongoing cooperation and compromise, the exchange of ideas across cultures and the peaceful resolution of differences through negotiation or the rule of law.

Economic growth expands the middle class, a constituency for further reform. Successful economies rely on vibrant private sectors, which have an interest in curbing indiscriminate government power.

Those who develop the practice of controlling their own economic destiny soon desire a voice in their communities and political societies.

Excerpted from the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, published on July 22, 2004. For the full report, please click here.