Repairing the U.S. Image in Muslim World
America's image is on the rebound throughout much of the world, driven in large part by positive reactions to the new U.S. president. Barack Obama's ratings in Western Europe are about as high as an American president can hope to receive—more than nine-in-ten in France and Germany express confidence in his leadership—and ratings for the United States itself are up dramatically. Sizeable increases have also taken place in Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia.
However, as a new Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of 24 countries and the Palestinian territories reveals, the Muslim world remains largely immune to Obamamania. In predominantly Muslim nations, widespread concerns about American policy and American power linger, and while Obama is certainly viewed more favorably than his predecessor, his popularity has translated into only modest improvements in America's overall image, and in some cases, no change at all.
Among the 25 publics in the study, in only five do fewer than 30% of those surveyed express a favorable view of the U.S.—all of which are overwhelmingly Muslim: Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and Turkey. In Egypt and Jordan there has been a slight rise in favorable views since 2008, but Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Turks are no more likely to give the U.S. a positive review now than they were in the final years of the Bush Administration.
While America's image plummeted throughout much of the world during the Bush years, anti-Americanism always ran deeper in Muslim nations, where fear of America's power and distrust of its intentions became entrenched. The Iraq war intensified anti-Americanism in the Middle East and spread it to nations such as Turkey and Indonesia, where attitudes toward the U.S. were relatively positive at the beginning of the decade. Many Muslims saw hidden motives in Bush's war on terror, such as protecting Israel, controlling Middle Eastern oil, and targeting unfriendly Muslim governments.
Although a new team is now in the White House, much of the distrust persists. For example, the 2009 poll finds that in predominantly Muslim nations, there is generally little support for U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts. Large numbers continue to consider the U.S. an enemy, including big majorities in Pakistan (64%) and the Palestinian territories (77%). And majorities in six of the seven Muslim nations surveyed say they are worried that the U.S. may become a military threat to their country some day.
Compared with other countries in the survey, expectations for the Obama presidency are more muted in Muslim nations. In most nations polled, people tend to believe Obama will take a multilateral approach to foreign policy and that he will be fair in his dealings with the Israelis and Palestinians. Neither view, however, is common among Muslims. In the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, more than six-in-ten doubt Obama will be fair in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, despite all this pessimism, there are hopeful signs. First, the "Muslim world" is far from monolithic, and America's image has improved in several Muslim communities. Today, 61% of Nigerian Muslims express a favorable view of the U.S., up from 39% last year. In Indonesia, the world's largest majority Muslim country, ratings for the U.S. are way up, in large part due to Obama's personal connection to the country (he lived in Jakarta for several years as a child). Last year, 37% of Indonesians had a positive view of the U.S., while 63% do so now.
A remarkable 90% of Lebanese Sunni Muslims hold a favorable view of the U.S., up from last year's already high 62%. Lebanese Sunnis are now more pro-American than the country's Christians, 66% of whom express a positive view. In sharp contrast, only 2% of Lebanese Shia assign the U.S. favorable marks.
A second reason for hope is that even when America's ratings were near their nadir, many Muslims continued to embrace certain elements of U.S. "soft power." The 2007 Pew Global survey showed that American science and technology were almost universally popular in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. The same poll found that America's approach to business was relatively popular in the Muslim Middle East—at least four-in-ten Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians said they liked American style business practices.
And finally, this year's survey suggests that, even though Obama has not brought about a sea change in Muslim attitudes toward the U.S., he may be laying the groundwork for improvement. Even in Turkey—the nation with the lowest favorability rating for the U.S. in the last three Pew surveys—there are signs of change. For instance, although 54% of Turks say they are worried about a potential U.S. military threat, this is down 22 percentage points from last year. And while four-in-ten Turks still label the U.S. an enemy, this is down from 70% just a year ago.
The survey was mostly conducted before Obama's June 4 Cairo speech, so it is difficult to assess whether it had much of an effect. However, in the Palestinian territories several hundred interviews were conducted both before and after the Cairo address, and an analysis of the data suggests that the speech had a small, but still notable, impact on Palestinian views. Most interestingly, the share of Palestinians saying Obama will consider their country's interests when making foreign policy rose from 27% before the speech to 39% after the speech. Not a dramatic turnaround, but such small, incremental shifts may be the best the new administration can hope for, given the deep-seated animosity still pervasive in many Muslim nations.
This commentary appears on the CBS News Web site. Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project.