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Despite close cooperation between the United States and some Middle Eastern states, serious tensions have often marred U.S. relations with Arabs and other Muslims in the Middle East. Popular sentiment in the Middle East, sometimes referred to as the "Arab street," has become increasingly important in its ability to influence regional policies as it has benefitted from the expansion in reach, availability, and sophistication of media outlets. Although there is much ambivalence on the "Arab street" regarding the United States, popular attitudes among Arabs and other Muslims in this region appear unfavorable toward the United States on various issues, which are summarized below.
As the lone remaining superpower, the United States has become a convenient target for discontent among much of the world's population. In the Middle East in particular, there is a tendency to blame U.S.-led globalization for the region's economic ills, despite the failure of Middle Eastern regimes themselves to adopt policies that would contribute toward greater economic growth.
There is a widespread perception in the region of U.S. society as fundamentally alien, if not hostile, to Islamic beliefs and values. At the same time, many Middle Easterners are attracted to the democratic principles and economic opportunities they find in the United States.
The deployment of U.S. armed forces contingents in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia (where Islam's holiest cites are located), offends many in the region. These forces, however, maintain a generally low profile.
Many in the region blame U.S. containment policies for the continued sufferings of the Iraqi people. U.S. officials counter that Iraqi polices have caused the country's economic privations and warn that it would be risky to abandon containment measures until Iraq honors pertinent U.N. resolutions.
A common perception that U.S. policy is biased toward Israel has been a frequently cited cause of Arab and Muslim resentment. U.S. administrations, however, have devoted major efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among the "Arab street" there is some resentment over the U.S. role in bolstering regimes that are perceived as oppressive, corrupt, or un-Islamic. These governments play important roles, however, in U.S. policy, and several have instituted reforms.
Various measures have been suggested to improve Middle East perceptions of the United States: expanded aid and trade enhancement programs; efforts to counter unfavorable images; attempts to secure wider backing for containing Iraq, while fine-tuning economic sanctions; agreement on a new framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations; encouragement of more open political systems in the Middle East. Local resentments, however, will not vanish overnight.
The United States has enjoyed close relations with Arab and Muslim states in the Middle East since the region emerged in its present configuration after the two world wars. U.S. economic and military assistance has played a major role in the development of important regional states such as Egypt and Jordan. Oil rich countries in the Persian Gulf region have been essential suppliers of energy resources to the United States and its industrial allies and major purchasers of U.S. commercial and military equipment. These ties have helped create a network of organizational relationships, official and personal contacts, bilateral economic and military commissions, and joint commercial endeavors between the United States and friendly countries in the Middle East.
Despite this extensive cooperation, serious tensions have often marred U.S. relations with Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, both at governmental and popular levels. Some governments and sub-national groups in the region are avowedly hostile to the United States, oppose its policies on a broad spectrum of issues, and seek to damage U.S. interests in the region, sometimes through violence. This is particularly true of those governments that the U.S. State Department identified as supporters of international terrorism, as well as a number of militia-type groups that the State Department lists as foreign terrorist organizations. Even friendly governments in the Middle East are ambivalent in their relations with the United States, either because they disagree with specific aspects of U.S. policy (such as the Arab-Israeli conflict) or because they are constrained by anti-U.S. sentiment within their own populations.
Popular attitudes are even more complex and difficult to assess. The image of the United States as a "land of milk and honey" as well as a land of freedom and opportunity co-exists with another image of moral decadence and hostility to Islamic society in the minds of many residents of the Middle East. These conflicting images can lead to wide swings in popular attitudes toward the United States. The friendliness that many Americans encounter in casual contacts with ordinary citizens of Middle East countries can turn quickly to hostility and, on occasion, to violence when the United States adopts a policy seen by locals as inimical to Arab or Muslim interests.
This report will review the nature and evolution of attitudes toward the United States among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, discuss factors creating resentment toward the United States, and look briefly at the implications of various policies the United States might adopt to deal with these attitudes. Emphasis will be on attitudes in the Middle East, which remains the heartland of Arab and Muslim civilization. This area extends from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, and comprises 18 Arabic-speaking countries (which are largely Muslim) and Iran (Muslim but not Arab). Israel, where the majority is neither Arab nor Muslim, is not covered, nor is Turkey, a Muslim country with a highly secular political system and a member of NATO. Also, this report does not deal primarily with several other Muslim countries located in southern or central Asia. Attitudes in these more distant Muslim countries, however, sometimes echo those encountered among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, albeit at a generally lower level of intensity.
Evolution and Nature of Attitudes
The United States fell heir to a complex relationship that developed between Islamic society and the west over a period of 14 centuries. Although the various Islamic empires that existed during that lengthy period were sometimes allied with one or more European states, Islamic-western relations tended to be a story of conflict: the early Arab conquests after the emergence of the Islamic religion; the European-led crusades from the 11th to 13th centuries; the expansion of the Ottoman Turkish empire into southeastern Europe in the 15th and 16th; and the establishment of colonial or quasi-colonial regimes over much of the Arab world by France, Britain, and to a lesser extent Italy in the 19th and early 20th. As Arab states acquired full independence following World War II, their citizens continued to harbor strong sensitivities over anything that suggested "western imperialism." Iran, occupied by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II, retained similar sensitivities toward any form of interference from external powers.
The United States, a latecomer to the Middle East, enjoyed a more favorable image in the region than did its European counterparts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the brief exception of the Barbary wars, the United States was not involved in any regional conflict and had no discernable colonial ambitions in the region. U.S. visitors-mainly educators, travelers, and diplomatic envoys-were well received on the whole. A high point in regional perceptions of the United States may have been reached at the end of World War I, when inhabitants of the Middle East welcomed President Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination and some of them saw in the United States a potential counterweight to the colonial ambitions of France and Britain. (1)
This period of minimal U.S. involvement in the Middle East came to an end after World War II, as the United States undertook expanded worldwide commitments and acquired three major interests in the Middle East region: maintaining access to the region's oil resources, blocking Soviet attempts to achieve hegemony in the Middle East, and safeguarding the security of the newly created state of Israel. Pursuit of these interests compelled the United States to become an active player in Middle East affairs and adopt periodically conflicting policies that were sometimes resented in the region. In particular, the U.S. role in the creation of Israel in 1948 was decried among most Arabs and Muslims, who believed that a Palestinian state should have been set up in the disputed territory.
Moreover, in the decades that followed, U.S. policy collided with the two principal political movements in the region: secular pan-Arab nationalism, which was spread by the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and Islamic fundamentalism, which began to replace secular nationalism in the 1970s. (2) Both movements to varying degrees developed anti-western and anti-Israeli underpinnings. A discussion of Islamic fundamentalist movements (sometimes referred to as Islamism, Islamic resurgence, or political Islam) is beyond the scope of this report; however, three points are worth noting. First, Islamic fundamentalism is not monolithic; it is espoused by a number of groups that vary in orientation and intensity. …