The recent wave of anti-American protests and riots across the Muslim world, triggered by an Islam-bashing YouTube video, has revived the “why do they hate us?” debate: Why such high levels of extremism in many Muslim societies, and why so much anger toward the United States? For some on the left and the isolationist right, the answer is clear: It’s our fault. America and our allies, the argument goes, have caused Muslims vast suffering; no wonder Muslims seize on the pretext of blasphemy to vent their anger. But, whatever one thinks of US policies, the America-blaming is simplistic and misguided — and dangerously myopic to the danger of radical Islamism.
America’s offenses —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. But is the anger driven mainly by concern for Muslim lives and welfare, or by more ideological motives? One sees little outrage over the carnage in Syria where as many as 30,000 may have died since last year’s uprising. In Pakistan, terrorists have killed over 14,000 civilians and more than 4,500 security personnel since 2004 (the civilian toll from US 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 and backed a Muslim-slaughtering regime in Serbia, 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 cliché. In rebuttal, critics cite a 2004 poll in which Muslims in several countries overwhelmingly condemned US Mideast policies and the Iraq war but often approved of American values such as democracy and freedom.
But other studies 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 American military power — whose impact was seen as “very bad” by 46 percent — than to American cultural influence (56 percent). While nearly half of Yemenis favored US security assistance 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.
America provides a convenient target for modernization anxieties. In a 2011 paper, political scientists Lisa Blaydes of Stanford University and Drew Linzer of Emory University conclude that anti-Americanism in Muslim countries is most reliably predicted by conflict between Islamists and secularists and by anti-American rhetoric from Islamist elites.
Of course the ridiculous YouTube video was only a pretext. But religious zealotry is no fiction. American policies did not cause the edict for the murder of “blasphemous” novelist Salman Rushdie. American policies are not responsible for the fact that, last year, 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. Earlier this month, 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 America is to blame for the Spanish Inquisition?
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.