By Richard S. Dunham In early March, a Gallup poll of people in 10 Islamic nations sent shock waves across the U.S. Clear majorities of Muslims in all the countries thought U.S. military action in Afghanistan was unjustified. Many denied that Arabs had carried out the September 11 attacks. Even in supposed American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan, large numbers of Muslims described the U.S. as unfriendly, untrustworthy, and easily provoked.
"Why do they hate us?" the Sunday talk shows agonized. "Ingrates!" America-firsters wailed. But while the Gallup survey set off alarm bells, it also raised important questions for American policymakers who are trying to figure out how to better communicate to the Islamic world.
What is it that Muslims -- and Arabs in particular -- so dislike about the U.S.? What do they like about America? And how do policymakers use the latest available technologies, from satellite TV to the Internet, to leverage the positive views of the U.S. to counter the negative?
THUMBS-UP ON CAPITALISM. Some of those questions have been answered in a second poll of Arab and Muslim nations, this one conducted by Zogby International. The findings are fascinating, and if the Bush Administration is smart it will study the results closely for clues on how to improve America's image in the Middle East and beyond.
Zogby surveyed residents of five Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon), three non-Arab Islamic countries (Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia), and two others (France and Venezuela) for comparison purposes. The bottom line: While they have overwhelmingly negative reaction to U.S. policy positions, Arabs and Muslims are not opposed to all things American.
Indeed, Arab and Islamic countries are more enthusiastic about old-fashioned Yankee capitalism than they are about American concepts of freedom and democracy. Most Muslims think highly of U.S.-made products, particularly American technology, scientific advances, and American films and TV. The U.S. education system also earns high grades. "In essence, they don't hate us," says pollster John Zogby, who is of Lebanese-Christian descent. "They don't hate what we're about."
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD. One example: Despite the image of Iran as a hotbed of anti-Americanism, Iranians think highly of American culture, according to the Zogby poll. While their government was described by President Bush as being part of an "axis of evil," Iranians are among the most likely to say hooray for Hollywood: 75% say they like to watch American movies. In contrast, the French are the most likely to just say non to U.S. entertainment exports.
Clearly, expanded commerce is a way to improve U.S. relations in the Middle East. Building on the Jordan free-trade agreement negotiated by former President Clinton and signed into law by Bush would be a good first step. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and brother of the pollster, credits the U.S. business presence in Kuwait with nurturing a very positive view of America -- far more positive than in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which segregates U.S. citizens.
It's in America's interest to figure out ways to use government programs to minimize the risks to U.S. companies willing to expand their operations in the region. The U.S. needs to be seen as more than a thirsty importer of oil and quiet exporter of military weapons. High-tech products and Hollywood production values could be part of the answer.
NET-SAVVY FREINDS. Another positive sign for the Bush Administration: Younger Arabs are more favorably disposed toward the U.S. than their elders, according to Zogby. This includes 66% of those under age 30 in Lebanon (vs. 56% of those over 50) and 54% in Saudi Arabia (vs. 35%). This is particularly heartening because more than half of the Arab population is under 21 years old.
The finding also goes against the conventional wisdom that large numbers of younger Arabs hate Americans because of their anti-U.S. indoctrination. The White House might want to study this finding closely and develop a policy for helping to bring more economic stability -- and eventually prosperity -- to the impoverished region.
More good news: Arabs and Muslims who use the Internet are far more favorably disposed toward America than their low-tech neighbors and relatives. In Egypt, 72% of Net-savvy citizens view U.S. freedom and democracy favorably, while just 42% of non-Web users do. In Saudi Arabia, 63% of those with Net access rank the U.S. positively, while 43% of nonusers do. The message to Bush is clear: Do whatever it takes to increase Internet usage in the Middle East while spreading America's message in a factual way on the Web.
FRUSTRATED. Even with these glimmers of hope, there are clear trouble spots. The rejection of America's pro-Israel tilt is nearly unanimous. Asked whether they approve of U.S. government policy toward the Palestinians, just 1% of Kuwaitis, 2% of Lebanese, 3% of Egyptians and Iranians, 5% of Saudis and Indonesians, and 9% of Pakistanis say yes. "It's not our values, it's not our democracy, it's not our freedom...it's the policy they don't like," says James Zogby. (Support for U.S. policy in Europe doesn't appear to be much greater, to be sure. The Zogby poll found it's just 12% in France.)
Millions of Arabs young and old are disillusioned by the Israeli-Palestinian violence and frustrated by the inability of the U.S. to prod the parties toward a final settlement that yields an independent Palestine. Indeed, hatred of Israel runs deep. And, as the Gallup Poll so dramatically indicated, misinformation runs high in the Middle East.
It will be very difficult to reeducate many Muslims who have been taught vicious, profane lies about the Jewish religion and the Israeli nation in their schools and in their state-controlled press. Improved American relations with the Arab world doesn't have to mean a diminished commitment to the survival and prosperity of Israel, however.
As Bush has said, now is the time to act. And as the Zogby Poll shows, the audience may be a bit more receptive than Americans had previously thought. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online