Why Muslims are still mad at America
Men stand near their trucks as they are questioned by U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment about the contents in their trucks on July 14, 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province, Iraq. (Getty Images)
September 5th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

Why Muslims are still mad at America

Editor’s Note: Steven Kull is director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and author of the recently released book, Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America.

By Steven Kull, Special to CNN

On the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, many Americans are wondering whether the risk of a terrorist attack against America has been reduced.  The picture is mixed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is weaker.  With revolutions in several Arab countries, frustrations with unpopular autocratic governments - a recruiting theme for terrorist groups - have been mitigated.  But one important contributing factor has not improved - widespread anger at America in the Muslim world.  While views have improved in Indonesia, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hostility toward the United States persists unabated.

This does not mean that most Muslims support terrorist attacks on America. On the contrary, overwhelming majorities reject terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks, as morally wrong.  Al Qaeda is quite unpopular.

However, anger at America does contribute to an environment in which it is easier for anti-American terrorist groups to recruit jihadists, to generate funding and to generally operate with little government interference - witness how bin Laden operated in Pakistan and the widespread anger there when the Pakistani military failed to prevent the United States from taking him out.

Trying to understand Muslims’ feelings toward America has been the focus of a five-year study I recently completed that included conducting focus groups and surveys throughout the Muslim world.  I sat for many hours trying to understand as Muslims explained to me why they are so mad at America.

Muslims have much they do not like about how America treats them. But there is one thing that is the most fundamental: their perception that America seeks to undermine Islam - a perception held by overwhelming majorities.

The fact that many Americans blithely brush off this accusation without really understanding it is one reason this anger persists. To understand it one must go deeper into the Muslim worldview.

Muslims tend to view current events through the lens of a long-standing historical narrative.  According to this narrative, going back to the Middle Ages Christian forces from the West have persistently sought to break the grip of Islam on its people.  By holding fast, Muslims believe, they were able to flourish as a civilization, at times superseding the West in many dimensions.

Today, they believe, that struggle continues - except today the challenge is greater. Western cultural products are seen as seductively undermining Islamic culture.   More importantly, Western powers have gained extraordinary military might that is seen as threatening and coercively dominating the Muslim world and propping up secular autocrats ready to accommodate the West.  U.S. support for Israel, sometimes described as ‘America’s aircraft carrier in the region’, is seen as integral to U.S. plans for domination. All this is seen as also serving Western economic interests, such as in securing oil, which dovetails with the agenda of keeping Islam under foot.

Muslims overwhelmingly believe that the 9/11 attacks, and any attacks on civilians, are contrary to Islam.  However, many Muslims do believe that America must back away from the Muslim world.

America did not back away after 9/11.  Rather, it advanced into Afghanistan, into Iraq, and expanded its forces based in the Gulf.  Many Muslims, with their penchant for conspiracy theories, even wonder if the United States somehow engineered the 9/11 attacks to justify this advance.  When George W. Bush, in what has to go down as one of the greatest public diplomacy missteps of all time, announced a “crusade” against terrorism, the assimilation of American actions into the long-standing narrative of Western hostility to Islam was all but complete.

Like most Americans I initially viewed this as a big misunderstanding.  Muslims, it seemed, underestimated the pluralism of Western society and with an overactive historical imagination had strung together various elements - each with their own good explanation - into a paranoia-tinged narrative of American hostility to Islam.

And yet with time it became clearer to me what it was about Americans that gave them this impression.  Sure, Americans are happy to have Muslims go to their mosques.  If they want to sneak away to pray 5 times a day - fine.

But for many Muslims this pluralistic bonhomie masks an American narrative that is actually quite oppressive.  This narrative is one that some Muslims think they see even more clearly than Americans themselves.

According to this American narrative - which Muslims perceive as arrogant and dismissive - human society naturally and inevitable evolves through the stages that the West has gone through.  As in the Renaissance, religion is largely banished from the public sphere, thus allowing pluralism and diversity of beliefs in the private sphere while maintaining a secular public sphere.  This leads naturally to the elevation of individual freedoms and the emergence of democratic principles that make the will of the people the basis of the authority of law rather than revealed religious principles.

From this assumed American perspective, Muslim society is seen as simply behind the West in this evolutionary process.  Retrogressive forces in Muslim society are seen as clinging to Islamic traditions that make Sharia the basis of law, not the will of the people, and inevitably keep women in their traditional oppressed roles and minority religions discriminated against.

Muslims see this narrative as being used to justify America actually violating democratic principles in relation to the Muslim world.  Even if it is contrary to the will of the people, the United State props us autocratic governments on the basis that they are relatively more progressive - according to the assumed Western narrative - than what the people would do if they had their way.  When the Algerian military in 1991 overturned the results of a democratic election when it appeared that an Islamist party would prevail, America and other Western governments turned a blind eye.  When democratic forces arose in Tunisia and Egypt, Muslims perceive that the United States only joined the parade when the outcome was irreversible.  Still, America supports autocratic forces in Bahrain in the face of pro-democratic forces calling for change.

A particularly frustrating feature of the U.S. narrative, for Muslims, is that it divides Muslim society into a progressive liberal and secular sector on one hand and on the other a regressive Islamist sector that seeks to impose backward Islamic traditions.   America then seeks to promote the liberal forces and to undermine the Islamist forces.

This is not simply imagined. Currently in Congress there are efforts to ensure that U.S. funding of democracy promotion in Egypt only benefits liberal, secular parties and does not in any way benefit Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

To most Muslims this American perspective on Muslim society is simply incorrect and American efforts to choose the winner is really about America seeking to impose its Western secular model of governance and to eradicate the role of Islam in the public sphere.  Since to Muslims Islam is, by definition, meant to be in the public sphere, American efforts are seen as seeking to undermine Islam itself.

The assertion that America is misreading Muslim society is supported by polling data.  While Americans do tend to divide the Muslim public into secular and Islamist groups, polls show that Muslims do not divide so neatly.

Overwhelming majorities endorse liberal principles including that the will of the people should be the basis of governance, government leaders should be chosen through free elections and that there should be full freedom of religion.

At the same time, equally large majorities say that Sharia should be the basis of government, that all laws should be vetted by Islamic scholars to ensure they are consistent with the Koran and that Muslims should not be allowed to convert to another religion.

Obviously there are some serious contradictions here.  But these contradictions are not primarily between sectors of Muslim society but rather within Muslim individuals.  This could be described as an “internal clash of civilizations.”

Muslims are well aware of these tensions.  They are drawn to the liberal ideas of democracy and pluralism and they want to find a way to incorporate them into their societies.  Al Qaeda’s model of rejecting all Western influences in favor of purely traditional society garners little support.

At the same most Muslims want to preserve the Islamic foundations of their society and want their public life to be infused with Islamic principles.  Most want Sharia to play a greater role.  They want a quality of piety to pervade their culture. Integrating these aspirations with liberal ideas of democracy and freedom of religion is a decidedly challenging endeavor.

So it is particularly infuriating to Muslims when America intervenes in a way that is destabilizing, trying to root for one imagined side against another, in what Americans conceive of as an inevitable evolution toward the victory of one side.

If this were in fact a conflict between external groups, such interventions may in fact strengthen one side over the other. But because the conflict is actually primarily an internal conflict, America’s interventions produce a backlash, making Muslims feel that they need to do more to defend their Islamic foundations and making advocates of liberal ideas suspect.

There are reasons to believe that this effect was al Qaeda’s intended goal of the 9/11 attacks.  By provoking America into military action against Muslim targets, al Qaeda hoped to revive the age-old narrative of the crusading West and to drive the Muslim people into the arms of al Qaeda’s vision of a purely traditional Islamic society devoid of liberal or Western elements.

Al Qaeda did not succeed in drawing in most Muslims.  Al Qaeda’s terrorist methods are seen as wrong and its vision as too extreme.  The hold of liberal ideas is not easy to shake. However, al Qaeda did succeed in pulling the United States into a position in the Muslim world that has alienated much of Muslim society.

By intervening in ways that have enhanced the polarization of secular and Islamist forces the United States has also made it more difficult for Muslims to build a political space within which they can find a middle ground that integrates these elements into a more coherent whole.

As America begins to gradually disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan there is the potential for negative feelings toward the United States to begin to abate.  Muslims generally perceive U.S. military forces in the region as a threatening presence designed to keep the region the way America wants it to be. Any lightening of America’s military footprint will further mitigate this sense of being coerced.

But perhaps most fundamentally, America’s relationship is most likely to improve as it comes to understand, accept and embrace the whole of Muslim society and the course of development that it has chosen for itself.  Muslims believe that they are on a different path than the West .  This path is central to their notion of their freedom to practice their religion.  When they feel that America is threatening their religion and their aspirations, they grow resolutely hostile.

As Americans we may believe that it is not possible to blend such a form of religiosity and liberal values.  Maybe Muslims will conclude this too.  But only when Muslims perceive America as no longer being an obstacle to their endeavor will they be able to move forward in their discovery.  And it is only then that America’s relationship with the Muslim world will become more amicable.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Steven Kull.

Post by:
Topics: Islam • Middle East • Perspectives • Poll • United States

soundoff (1,813 Responses)
  1. Global Economy

    Very thoughtful article. I couldn't ask for a better attempt to describe the cultural difference and perceptions between America an Islam. Unless and until we in America seek to understand other cultures, we will remain self-centered and at war with the world.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:59 am | Reply
  2. Terry

    Thor, you are very ignorant or are intentionally spreading mistruths...many Muslim clergy and leaders both in the USA
    and abroad have vocally condemned Al Qaeda, 911 and terrorism anywhere as against the true teachings of Islam.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:29 am | Reply
  3. thekid

    "Overwhelming majorities endorse liberal principles including that .... there should be full freedom of religion."

    Ridiculous. Outrageous. Idiotic. No Islamic state has freedom of religion. To the contrary, virtually all major modern Islamic figures demand the death penalty for any male Muslim who publicly denounces Islam and favor criminal laws against insulting Islam. Even the Obama Adminstration filed a resolution before the United Nations in September of 2009 which would criminally outlaw "defamation of Islam" as well as insult to any religion. We be vigilant and must stand against fascism while we still can!

    September 11, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  4. sarah

    History will prove his comment of "When George W. Bush, in what has to go down as one of the greatest public diplomacy missteps of all time, announced a “crusade” against terrorism" wrong. Really?

    September 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  5. QJ Durward

    A interesting statement in Krull's blog is that "large majorities say that Sharia should be the basis of government, that all laws should be vetted by Islamic scholars to ensure they are consistent with the Koran and that Muslims should not be allowed to convert to another religion"
    Islam teaches there is no God but Allah. All people must submit to Allah. Muslims believe this inerrantly. Consequently, the manifest success and domination of Christianity and Western Civilization, Culture, Science and Business in the world is abhorrent to Muslims as it exposes their belief as a lie and of no consequence. On top of that, Muslims find that the crushing domination of the West over the Islamic World in any potential future military confrontation leaves them no source of hope they will ever fulfill their religion's goals. The resulting frustrated madness leads to the aberrant suicidal murderous behaviors tolerated to varying degrees by all Muslim societies.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  6. Paul Sabino

    Steve Kull has written superficially about a deeper subject.
    Anti America is propagated out of every jihadist mosque because the USA stands as an ally of Israel.
    The creation of Israel after WW2 by UK and USA are seen as a reversal to the existence and spread of islam.
    It is proof of a lower god, a lower belief.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist Turkey invasion and occupation of Cyprus.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist Turkey invasion and occupation of Constantinople.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina against Christian Egypt.
    Against Lybia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morrocco, Spain, and stopped in FRANCE.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina against the Eastern Mediterranean countries.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina against the European Balkans stopped in KOSOVO.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina against Central Europe stopped in VIENA.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina against Caucasian Countries.
    S Kull and all those he spoke to have failled to mention islamist crusades out of Medina eastwards stopped in INDIA.
    S Kull does not understand that islam is a false religion set up to attack Christain Europe.
    Were there islamic forces attacking Europe at the time of the Holy Land Crusades?
    Yes, they were still being pushed back out of the Iberian Peninsula.
    So the Holy Land Crusades Were A Legitimate Counter Attack!

    September 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  7. QJ Durward

    large majorities say that Sharia should be the basis of government, that all laws should be vetted by Islamic scholars to ensure they are consistent with the Koran and that Muslims should not be allowed to convert to another religion.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  8. r.pal

    To understand Islam look at their conquests after the 7th century. In India from 900 AD to 1750 AD the conquests
    led to the lying of 125 MILLION non Muslims and countless others who were forcibly converted and
    If that is what they did they. This is the Islam the world outside USA knows and it is not pretty
    Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) German philosopher and writer. He was one of the greatest philosophers of the 19th century. He was the first Western philosopher to have access to translations of philosophical material from India, both Vedic and Buddhist, by which he was profoundly affected. Counted among his disciples are such thinkers as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as well as Sigmund Freud. Author of his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, in 1819, he narrates the sordid tale as follows:

    "...This of the fanaticism, the endless persecutions, the religious wars, that sanguinary frenzy of which the ancients had no conception! The destruction or disfigurement of the ancient temples and idols, a lamentable, mischievous and barbarous act still bears witness to the monotheistic fury...carried on from Mahmud, the Ghaznevid of cursed memory, down to Aurangzeb, the fratricide, whom the Portuguese...have zealously imitated by destruction of temples and the auto defe of the inquisition at Goa...We hear nothing of this kind in the case of the Hindoo...."

    September 12, 2011 at 9:35 am | Reply
  9. vblcoach

    What would put an end to this problem is create an alternative to fosil fuel and give it away for free to the world. Thism would turn them back into the desart people fighting each other as it has been for a 1000 years.The only reason they have anything is oil.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  10. YB

    And also let me clarify you guys on the word 'Jihad' most of you think it means 'fight or war or kill for God' and what not....In reality it means 'to work hard or struggle.' Jihad is an Arabic for struggle. When you go to work you are working hard to earn money, when you go to school you are working hard to educate yourself, and if you wanna use this word in the situation of a war then it means work hard to protect your self from the enemy's attack. If you feel that some one is going to hurt you, you immediately take action to protect yourself like you may call 9-11 or so similarly the war in islam is only allowed to defend and not to kill (even if they are non-believer).
    For those who say that we are told to kill Jews, Christians etc. They are referred to ask "people of book." The Quran usually says "o people of book....." which includes Islam, Judaism, Christianity.
    Why do we have to believe in this political propaganda and take it as a reason to start hating people around us? Remember unity bring about strength and which int urn makes a country strong and stable. If America continues to lack unity then it would be hard for it to recover from the problems it is facing today....Why cant we make it easier for America to recover from what has hurt its people the most? I am talking about recession, terrorism etc...

    September 14, 2011 at 2:41 am | Reply
  11. eatpork

    The US govt is gullible. Just say that you hate them, and they throw you money so you'll say you love them. Therefore, saying you hate the US is a money-making strategy.

    September 14, 2011 at 11:56 am | Reply
  12. Mallica

    I'm from a country which has one of the largest population of muslims in the world. Must tell you that muslims by nature is a rigid community both in thought and in action. Although the entire world has moved to a more progressive, tolerant and realistic approach towards culture and religion, muslim community has chosen to remain and live in the past clinging to a very outdated and primitive form of Islam, unwilling to accept and adapt to change, unable and unwilling to integrate with other cultures, societies and faiths very well. Most muslim societies have failed utterly on the political front as well, adding to their miseries and isolation. Neither its religious leaders, nor society in general has been able to show the true picture of Islam amd Islamic culture to the world. Hence, changing the mindset of such a society would be very difficult. It may happen gradually during the course of their evolution as a society.

    It would be in the best interest of US to leave them alone, both politically and otherwise. Instead, it should try to better understand Islam and the muslim culture, and help the community to progress and integrate itself with the world.

    and large isolated themselves from the entire world.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  13. eatpork

    Just by observation, it seems like there's the message that says Americans should work harder to understand Muslims. But the reciprocal doesn't seem to be there, i.e. Muslims telling themselves that they should work harder to understand Americans. Why is that ?

    September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  14. Adam H

    Name a Muslim country that is not a craphole? Why does America want to import a culture that doesn't work? If Muslims have a problem with how they are treated in America I am sure that they are welcome to go home where they are from!

    September 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Reply
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  26. 達賴是一個什麼喇嘛?

    達賴是一個什麼喇嘛?
    今天看到CNN的一篇報導.讓我思緒萬千.無法控制.我既然看到了.就讓我們的弟兄姐妹們與我同享達賴這個人的另一面吧.
    平時.在教會裡.大家說到佛教.說到達賴喇嘛的時候.總是懷著一些好感的.不管怎麼說.我們平時所看到的達賴喇嘛.批評中共.頭頭是道.政治專業.宗教平等.令人感動.偶爾讚嘆我們基督教幾句.但是.今天看到CNN在2001/1/29報導的一個新聞.不得不讓我改變了對達賴喇嘛的看法.

    據CNN報導說.流亡印度的西藏精神領袖達賴喇嘛和印度領導人一起譴責基督教和穆斯林.簽署了共同聲明.達賴喇嘛說:"任何人要皈依穆斯林或基督教都是錯誤的.都不好."這句話太恐怖了.竟然用不好的判定.達賴喇嘛還說:"我總是相信保持自己的傳統或信仰.更安全.更好.更合理."

    這裡面凸顯了達賴喇嘛的心懷鬼胎: 第一.達賴喇嘛心懷不可告人之意.將我們基督教與穆斯林並列在一起.無疑地.這裡面影射著意味深長的侮辱.穆斯林個別人造成了整個世界的不安寧.基督教什麼時候給人們帶來不安呢? 第二. 達賴說信仰他的佛教才安全.而信仰基督教是危險的.弟兄姐妹們應該問問達賴:信仰基督教危險在哪裡?基督教為全世界第一大宗教.基督為萬物之主.誰能比?但達賴竟然認為基督教主張有"恆常不變的常"."一"."自我".是"外道".要知道.基督徒佔全球總人口的33%.目前的科學文明大部分是在信仰基督教的國家和地區發展起來的.基督教對人類的貢獻最大.達賴卻說信仰基督教是錯誤的.不好的.危險的.達賴一心想詭計把基督教弟兄姐妹們收納攅在他的手掌心裏.實在不看看他自己.我到過斯里蘭卡.問過那裏的和尚們.也向西藏的一些喇嘛問過.他們說:" 達賴不是西藏的精神領袖.很多人都被騙了."

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