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.