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Anti-U.S. anger spreading in Islamic states, survey finds

By Brian Knowlton | The New York Times | May 19, 2005 | 3 pages

WASHINGTON — Anti-American anger in Islamic countries continues to spread across age and economic groups, according to a new survey of Muslim elites.

But the survey of focus groups, carried out for the Council on Foreign Relations, also concluded that hostility could be softened if the U.S. administration adopted a humbler tone, listened more closely to Muslim concerns, drew sharper attention to U.S. aid programs, including assistance to tsunami victims, and agreed to disagree on key issues, such as Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Many Muslims are so alienated that they claim they would not like to visit the United States, nor would they mind if the United States withdrew – politically, economically and militarily – from the Muslim world,” said the report, “A New Beginning,” written by Craig Charney and Nicole Yakatan of Charney Research.

“The most striking finding in this study is how widely anger has spread across the different demographic groups and countries,” the report said.

“Ironically,” it added, expressing the conflicted feelings it found, “when asked what they want from America, they request respect and aid – things America can provide.”

Results of the survey, conducted late last year and early this year among a total of 14 focus groups in Morocco, Egypt and Indonesia, comes at a time when the Bush administration has said it plans a closer, better coordinated effort to improve communications with Muslim publics. President George W. Bush named one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes, to lead that effort.

But the survey also comes as Islamic fury over the Newsweek report that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran – a report since retracted – underscores the difficulty of managing, recasting or simply dealing with negative news.

The existence of strong Muslim antipathy toward the United States and its leaders, particularly since 2001, is hardly new; public opinion polls have confirmed it. They also have found improving views of the United States in some countries since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but “no postwar bounce in the Muslim world.”

This survey questioned small groups of Muslim elites – all university-educated – to gauge how rigidly set were the views of opinion leaders, and how they might be influenced.

The small-group approach tended to make participants more open to offering candid responses, Charney said in an interview. Such an approach was “particularly important in nervous and constrained societies,” he said.

In Egypt, for example, many people expressed nervousness about expressing their opinions – “They can arrest us,” an older woman said, referring to the feared consequence of answering questions. “Can you walk in the street and say anything bad about the president?” she added – but group members then excitedly did so.

There is ongoing debate in Washington and beyond over the sources of antipathy, and the extent to which it is based on U.S. actions, or on misunderstanding of those actions.

The group members “do not hate America’s freedom and wealth; they envy them,” the report said. “They do not project repressed rage at their governments onto ours; their views of America have worsened while their attitudes toward their own rulers have improved.

“It is more accurate to say they hate America for what the country has done, but it is most accurate to say they are hostile to American policies as they perceive them.”

American military actions have left many in the Islamic world seeing the United States as “domineering and unpredictable,” hostile to Muslims, and evincing a double standard in its embrace of Israel. These views are reinforced “by widespread stereotypes and misinformation,” particularly regarding Jewish influence on the U.S. government.

The report acknowledged that words alone could not change opinion. But this, it said, did not mean that only “drastic policy changes toward Iraq or Palestine” would budge opinion.

But U.S. government-sponsored media like Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra TV had proven singularly ineffective, the survey found, even if viewers also had doubts about Muslim media such as Al Jazeera.

The researchers recommended intensive efforts to work with Muslim media, both local and international. The administration has done this to a notable extent over the Newsweek controversy.

“We recommend a full-court press on all Muslim media,” said Charney. “Crisis management is not enough. We need a sustained effort.”

Those surveyed tended to be optimistic about their own governments – there have been liberalizing developments in each country – and favored free elections and the rule of law.

Most showed no concern that a free vote might bring Islamic parties to power, figuring that an elected Islamic government would be moderate rather than being an Iranian-style theocracy. “Islam is not a religion of dictatorship,” said a young Moroccan woman. “It is grounded and moral.”

There was admiration for Osama bin Laden, not because anyone favored a Taliban-style state, but because people said he had shown skill and fortitude against the dominant world power. A young Moroccan called him “a man who threatens America,” adding that this was “a good thing.”

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