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Anti-American sentiment is a very real factor in the Islamic world — for example, fewer than one-in-five Turks, Pakistanis, Jordanians, or Egyptians offered a favourable opinion of the US in Pew’s 2012 Global Attitudes poll.That anti-American sentiment has serious implications for the US, if not the entire world, but dealing with it requires one difficult question — exactly what causes it?
Lisa Blaydes of Stanford and Drew A. Linzer of Emory University have examined the views of thousands of Muslims across the Islamic world for a new paper in the American Political Science Review called “Elite Competition, Religiosity, and Anti-Americanism in the Islamic World”, and they believe they may have found part of the answer.
One key finding is that anti-American sentiment doesn’t seem to be a deep-rooted part of Islamic identity — in fact, it appears it might even be the the opposite. A country such as Turkey, with a significant and large secular society, is found to have 90% unfavorable views of the US, while more uniformly Islamic states such as Senegal and Ghana have anti-American views in just 10-20% of the population*.
The key factor is in fact not the depth of a country’s Islamic identity, but the level of conflict over power between Islamic elites and secular elites. The study says:
As competition intensifies, it becomes increasingly advantageous for elites to foment anti-American sentiment for their own political gain. The outcome of this elite-led process is what we contend survey researchers are detecting, at least in part, when they ask individual Muslims their opinion of the United States.
This is significant as it means that anti-American sentiment in these countries may be less about what America does, but how it’s portrayed.
While it may please us to know that US foreign policy isn’t making the Islamic world hate us (or at very least, it’s not the only thing), the study also points out one large downside to the results — changing the perception of the US from many miles away against the tide of local elites and media will be very, very difficult.
*CORRECTION: This paragraph originally referred to Ghana rather than Senegal, and has been ammended.
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