x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Why are Muslims hostile to the US?

The political psychologist Steven Kull finds that US foreign policy intended to be a stabilising force is instead perceived as coercive by the Muslim community.

The US author Steven Kull. 
Courtesy of Steven Kull
The US author Steven Kull. Courtesy of Steven Kull

Among the many queries that have circulated in US media circles since September 11, 2001, few have been more urgent than: "Why do they hate us?" It's a question Steven Kull has been asking in Muslim-majority countries for years.

"It's driven by US foreign policy, not US culture," Kull said in a recent interview given during a brief visit to Chicago. The author was passing through the city on a tour promoting his new book, Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America.

"The primary thing is that they see the US trying to dominate their world using the threat of military force, and they see this as driven by anti-Islamic attitudes and efforts to weaken Islam and promote a more secular approach."

Kull, among the world's leading political psychologists, came to his vocation rather circuitously. He earned a psychology PhD from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, then studied international relations as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford under Alexander George, one of the first to consider politics and policy from a behavioural perspective.

After nearly a decade as a psychotherapist, he gravitated towards domestic and international opinion and accepted a research position at the University of Maryland in 1990. Looking to give the public a greater voice in policy, he established the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the university's School of Public Affairs.

Kull went on to build a reputation as a thorough and enlightening pollster, helped initiate the BBC World Service's global polling programme and launched a series of research centres in more than 25 countries. He has briefed the US Congress, Nato, the UN and the European Union.

Since 2006, much of his work has focused on gauging opinions of the US in Muslim-majority countries. To this end, Kull has conducted focus groups in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Jordan, Iran and Indonesia, overseen surveys in 11 majority-Muslim nations and analysed data from Gallup and the Arab Barometer, among others. He compiled all of this in Feeling Betrayed, which goes beyond trite assumptions about Muslim anger at America to reveal an underlying narrative of betrayal and oppression.

The vast majority of Muslims oppose radicalism and terrorist attacks on civilians and consider Islam an integral part of their daily life. These same citizens see US officials speaking of dialogue and peaceful engagement, yet providing billions in aid to Israel. US combat forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, along with recent US sorties in Somalia, Yemen and Libya, further exacerbate these tensions and create opposing perspectives.

"Their perception is that all the forces that are there are in essence a gun aimed against them," said Kull. "We like to say we exert a stabilising influence on the region, while they see it as coercive."

Similarly, many Muslims see US officials calling for democracy, then denouncing elections when they dislike the results. "When the US takes a stance that is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, the perception, not without reason, is that the US is wary of democracy in the Muslim world," says Kull. "It's another sign we're hostile to Islam."

Such fear is not without precedent. "This feeds into the long-term narrative that dates back to the Crusades, that the West is always trying to come in and crush Islam," says Kull, recalling then-US president George W Bush, days after September 11, speaking of "this crusade, this war on terrorism". "That has to go down as one of the greatest-ever errors in public diplomacy."

Kull rejects the clash of civilisations theory, in large part because most Muslims he surveyed support democracy, personal freedoms and women's rights. Yet they also want to stay rooted in their Islamic identity. "They want to find a way to integrate these liberal ideas into their system," he explained, "but they haven't done it and they're struggling with it."

Kull hopes to help. His latest initiative, the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), goes beyond the simple survey, engaging the participants, asking them to solve social, political or governmental problems. In PPC's first study, released in February, some 2,000 Americans were asked to lay out the US government budget. They were able to, on average, cut spending by $146bn and increase revenue by nearly $300m.

"In Washington you have legislators who in the process of getting elected make a lot of commitments to special interests, and others have other interests, so it's gridlock," Kull explained. "The public approaches it as a problem-solving process."

Kull is planning a survey in Egypt, to consult with Egyptians on their possible form of government and offer various models. He might want to be careful: one of the more interesting findings from his work in Muslim countries is a direct correlation between the amount of US aid and the degree of dislike for the US among that country's populace.

Countries with the most negative US views include Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan. During a focus group session in Pakistan, Kull asked a woman what she wanted from the US. "She said: 'Why don't they do something about rubbish in the streets? It's a superpower, it can do anything,'" said Kull. "She was serious."

In certain countries, residents feel the US is dominating their life, even from a distance. This, for American policymakers, is not all bad. "It's like, 'Well, if they think we're so powerful, why do we want to disabuse them of that?'" said Kull. "It's easy to see how you come to that conclusion."

Some of these findings are less than revelatory. A plethora of pollsters, scholars and analysts, have consistently found the received thinking - that internal problems such as poverty and a lack of education are to blame for terrorism - lacking.

In his 2007 book, What Makes A Terrorist, the Princeton economist Alan Kreuger analysed US state department data on the country of origin of significant terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2003 and found that most socio-economic factors, including poverty and literacy, are unrelated to whether people embrace terrorism or dislike the US.

"America should spread its culture, rather than weapons or tanks," Mohammed el-Sayed Said, the deputy director of Egypt's Al Ahram think tank, said in October 2001. "They can't just project an image of contempt for those they wish to lead."

What's important, rather, is that these views are finally receiving a thorough hearing at the highest levels of American decision- making. Indeed, Kull's earliest studies of Muslim opinions of the US were sponsored by the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which is funded by the US department of homeland security.

Drawing lessons from his work, Kull advises US officials to avoid polarising comments or policies and to distinguish between radical and moderate Islamist groups - and be willing to talk with the latter.

This seems particularly topical advice. A Pew poll from April found that the Arab Spring had mostly failed to improve the Muslim world's opinion of the US, and in some countries opinions had worsened. "They believe the US support came late," said Kull. "They don't perceive that the US is helping this process."

This view could change if the US is careful and willing to engage with parties it might view as less than savoury. "I think if the US takes the stance that we're not going to have anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood," says Kull, "that's certainly going to feed this fear."