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Archive for Sunday, July 31, 2005

Terrorism loses, America gains in Muslim world’s opinion race

July 31, 2005

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We interrupt the latest reports about terrorist atrocities with a news bulletin: Support for suicide bombings and Islamic extremism, along with hatred of the Great Satan, is actually waning in the Muslim world.

If that comes as a surprise, it's because of the old adage that good news is no news. While the increase of anti-Americanism around the world and especially in Muslim countries has been exhaustively covered since 2001, not enough attention has been paid to an important survey released in the last month that found global opinion shifting in a more positive direction.

The public opinion poll was conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, hardly a bastion of neocon zealotry. (It's co-chaired by Madeleine Albright.) Over the past three years, Pew surveys have charted surging anti-Americanism in response to the invasion of Iraq and other actions of the Bush administration. But its most recent poll - conducted in May, with 17,000 respondents in 17 countries - also found evidence that widespread antipathy is abating.

U.S. gains favor

The percentage of people holding a favorable impression of the United States increased in Indonesia (plus 23 points), Lebanon (plus 15), Pakistan (2) and Jordan (16). It also went up in such non-Muslim nations as France, Germany, Russia and India.

What accounts for this shift? The answer varies by country, but analysts point to waning public anger over the invasion of Iraq, gratitude for the massive U.S. tsunami relief effort and growing conviction that the United States is serious about promoting democracy.

There is also increasing aversion to America's enemies, even in the Islamic world. The Pew poll found that "nearly three-quarters of Moroccans and roughly half of those in Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia see Islamic extremism as a threat to their countries."

Support for suicide bombing has declined dramatically in all the Muslim countries surveyed except Jordan, with its large anti-Israeli Palestinian population. The number of those saying that "violence against civilian targets is sometimes or often justified" has dropped by big margins in Lebanon (minus 34 points) and Indonesia (minus 12) since 2002, and in the last year in Pakistan (minus 16) and Morocco ( minus 27).

This has been accompanied by a cratering of support for Osama bin Laden everywhere except (unfortunately) Pakistan and Jordan. Since 2003, approval ratings for the world's No. 1 terrorist have slid in Indonesia (minus 23 points), Morocco (minus 23), Turkey (minus 8) and Lebanon (minus 12).

What accounts for this decline? Primarily the actions of the terrorists themselves. Since 9-11, most of the atrocities carried out by Islamist groups have occurred in Muslim nations - the latest examples are the bombings in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, and bombings too numerous to mention in Iraq - and most of the victims have been Muslims. Not surprisingly, this hasn't endeared the jihadists to a lot of their co-religionists.

Yet even attacks on the West no longer win knee-jerk approval in the Muslim world. After the 7-7 London bombings, Islamic groups and intellectuals who have seldom had a cross word for suicide bombings were pretty unequivocal in their condemnation.

To cite only one example of many, Jihad Al Khazen, a rabidly anti-American and anti-Israeli columnist for the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, wrote that "the Arabs and Muslims must help the U.S." in the war on terror. There are still plenty of Muslims who blame the victims for bringing terrorism upon themselves, but there is also a growing countervailing attitude.

Democracy not just for West

Muslim opinion also challenges jihadist orthodoxy that proclaims that giving power to the people, rather than to mullahs, is "un-Islamic." The latest Pew poll found "large and growing majorities in Morocco (83 percent), Lebanon (83 percent), Jordan (80 percent) and Indonesia (77 percent) - as well as pluralities in Turkey (48 percent) and Pakistan (43 percent) - (that) say democracy can work well and is not just for the West."

That's exactly what President Bush has been saying. Though his actions and rhetoric have been denounced as "unrealistic" and "extremist" by his American and European critics, it turns out that Muslims welcome it. "Roughly half of respondents in Jordan and nearly two-thirds of Indonesians think the U.S. favors democracy in their countries," the new Pew study said. "About half of the public in Lebanon also takes that view." Imagine that: Bush's actions might actually be making Middle Easterners more pro-American!

Of course, public opinion is fickle, and there is still a lot of hostility toward the United States out there.

Even a small minority of extremists can cause mayhem similar to the London bombings. But at least there are some signs that the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world is far from hopeless.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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