The US and Islam: a widening rift

Rami G. Khouri
7 Min Read

It is no surprise that at the annual meeting of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha last weekend, sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the state of Qatar, the focus of discussion returns repeatedly to American policies throughout the Middle East. The heart of US-Islamic relations is the discord over the Middle East, but that issue also clouds wider perceptions of the United States around the Muslim world.

At this annual gathering of some 200 personalities from all walks of life, we can experience two related phenomena: reaping the wisdom of scholars, analysts and pollsters who chart for us the broad trends (mostly deterioration) in American-Islamic perceptions of each other; while simultaneously watching Americans and Arabs in action, through their words, as the two continue to express mutual hostility and fear.

The dynamic is uneven, but now mutual. For years the US has used its military and diplomatic power to pursue its aims in the region, overthrowing regimes and trying to rearrange the political and social landscape. On September 11, 2001, a band of killers from the Arab world attacked the US, and Washington responded with armed fury. It waged a “global war on terror that has achieved a few measurable successes but sparked many more currents of concern and resistance around the Islamic and Arab worlds.

The statistical data from many reputable pollsters is consistent. One recent American survey of the Arab world (University of Maryland with Zogby International) shows that 78 percent of Arabs have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of the US, while 72 percent of Arabs polled see the US as the biggest state threat to them. A global survey of 40 Islamic communities by the American Gallup organization showed that Muslims admire American technology, freedom, and democracy, but want more “respect from Americans. Not surprisingly, the poll found that 57 percent of Americans, when asked what they admired most about Muslim societies, said “nothing or “I don’t know.

This is not a foundation for a mutually constructive relationship, and it shows very every time Americans gather with Arabs and Muslims to talk, as happened in Doha. Private discussions among those who view themselves as adversaries, or who even fear each other, tend to be useful, frank and satisfying; the public debate, however, verges ever more negatively on the insulting and the catastrophic. You only need to listen to American officials speak at such gatherings to understand why nearly four out of five Arabs have an unfavorable view of the US and its policies.

Last year Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes gave a talk that could have won a prize for naïveté, arrogance, and insult all rolled into one. This year, the task of further lowering Arab-Islamic esteem for the US government fell to David Satterfield, the senior adviser and coordinator for Iraq in the office of the US Secretary of State.

The gist of his remarks was that the US public and government have limited patience in Iraq, and it was up to Iraqis now to take change of their future by acting in a national rather than a sectarian fashion. He noted, correctly, that Iraq now represented a potential strategic threat to the entire region in the form of sectarian conflict, while saying that the US could act mainly as a “catalyst from now on as Iraqis took charge of their own destiny. He also said that the challenge to Iraq and others came from terrorists and insurgents “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence – as if the US had not used weapons when invading Iraq.

The destruction that might be unleashed around the Middle East, and possibly the world, from the US decision to go to war in Iraq is only now becoming clear. For the US to say that its patience is limited and that it can at best be a catalyst in the face of the furies and destruction it has unleashed is precisely the sort of self-serving double standard that causes so many people around the world to fear and resist the US.

The matter of responsibility, impunity, and accountability is rising higher on the list of priorities of people around the world who wish to end the cycle of fear and war that seems to define the US and much of the Arab and Islamic world. Saddam Hussein and his Baathist thugs were finally held accountable and killed. Similar judicial processes, but with more legitimacy, are underway in Lebanon and Sudan.

One wonders: Are only Arabs and Muslims to be held accountable for their brutality and crimes? Or is it possible to ask that those in the US, the United Kingdom, Israel, and other lands who have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people also be held accountable to world public opinion and the rule of law? Only then can we hope to slow down and perhaps stop the terrible cycle of perpetual tyranny and war in the Middle East – now closely associated with mutual disdain and distrust among ordinary Americans, Arabs, and Muslims.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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