September 7th, 2011
01:43 PM ET

Outreach yields little improvement in Muslim view of US

Analysis by Sr. State Dept Producer Elise Labott and Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

Support for Islamic extremism has seen a very significant decline since the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. By the time Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in May, he and his al Qaeda network had been largely discredited in the Arab and Muslim world.

But with a few exceptions, the Muslim world's image of the United States is still pretty awful.

How did we end up here - not much better than we were before 9/11?

In the days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks, the world stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States as it mourned its losses, buried its dead and grappled with the largest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.

In those early days, nearly every country around the world pledged to work with the United States to fight terrorism. Quickly, Washington led an unprecedented coming together of nations, to prevent another attack by sharing intelligence, tightening airline security and cooperating on law enforcement.

But that goodwill was quickly squandered.

Even before the first anniversary of the attacks, the image of the United States around the world began to plummet, with talk about the invasion of Iraq. While U.S. allies were disappointed that the United States went into Iraq without their approval, polls show the Muslim world saw something completely different: that the U.S.-led war on terrorism was really a war against Islam.

Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center notes that even in Muslim countries where the United States was well-regarded, such as Turkey and Indonesia, the positive view of America fell significantly.

Evidence of detainee abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, coupled with U.S. polices involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, furthered the perception that the United States was at war with Islam - despite extensive public diplomacy campaigns by the State Department to portray America as a country where Muslims were not only free to worship, but were part of the American social fabric.

Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute coined a phrase which became a popular refrain among Arabs and Muslims about the negative U.S. image in the region: "It's the policies, stupid."

The election of Barack Obama had the opportunity to re-write the U.S. narrative. Not only did Obama earn points for simply not being George Bush, but Arabs and Muslims had the perception that Obama would be a different kind of president, one who would deal with issues important to them. For the rest of the world, President Obama's promise of engagement and multilateralism brought back the feelings of goodwill absent during the Bush years. Even before Obama took office, Pew's polls showed that the number of people who had a favorable view of the United States went up significantly.

Obama furthered this goodwill when, two days after his inauguration, he appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy for Mideast peace and promised to make resolving the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a key issue for Arabs and Muslims - a priority for his administration. He followed that up with a speech in Cairo in 2009, promising deeper engagement and better relations with the Arab and Muslim world based on mutual interests and respect. He even stretched out his hand to Iran, offering a chance at a better relationship.

Two weeks after the Cairo speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Farah Pandith as an envoy in charge of outreach to Muslims. Focusing on grassroots engagement and youth, Pandith set out to create stronger ties through dialogue, cooperation and partnerships in education, science and technology and entrepreneurship.

But despite the change in tone, Obama was not seen in the region as being able to deliver on the tantalizing promises he made in Cairo. Dashed hopes and expectations led to skepticism and a view that Obama wasn't all that different after all. While Obama is held in a higher regard than President George W. Bush in countries like Jordan and Egypt, neither he, nor the United States, is well-regarded in the Arab and Muslim world. The one exception is Indonesia, where President Obama spent time as a young boy. The sea change in attitudes toward the United States in the region is still out of grasp.

Had Obama handled the revolutions that rocked Tunisia and Egypt differently, he might have gotten a boost from the Arab spring. Clearly, this period shows the vast majority of the region chose democratic values over the extremist ideology popular in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the invasion of Iraq. Yet the United States wasn't considered much of a player in the change enveloping the region.

Similarly, the killing of bin Laden did not improve the image of the United States, especially in Pakistan, where Washington has been engaged in an intensive hearts-and-minds campaign to the tune of $1.5 billion. Rather it was the Muslim public's personal experience with extremism that formed its view of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the end, as Jim Zogby so eloquently put it, it all goes back to the policies. Pew's Andrew Kohut agrees. Public diplomacy, financial aid and speeches may help put a nice gloss on U.S. policies, he said. But how the United States conducts itself in the Arab and Muslim world will do the most to shape the U.S. image in the region.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. bean bag

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    January 1, 2019 at 11:37 am | Reply
  2. Carla

    Americans, trash out your naivete. The pagan men only submit to the more mighty; so stay in power for your own safety or give Muslims Bibles and let them get educated. In any case, the West's immorality is de-spi-cable to any normal Muslims.

    September 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Reply
    • SKhan

      Eh buddy, you ever been to the Middle East? You ever read the Quran? The ENTIRE Quran? You ever heard of freedom of religion? And you arrogantly say that MUSLIMS have to be educated? The guys who invented coffee, the first successful flying machine, surgical tools still in use today, furthered mathematics and coined the term "ALGEBRA" (derived frorm "AL-JABR"), innovated architecture (that your God-damned Crusaders incorporated into their churches), perfected soap (as hygeine is an essential part of islam whereas Europeans didn't bathe), the first degree-granting university (which, btw, was founded by a Muslim princess, thereby putting to waste the myth that Muslim women are uneducated) and much more, basically without Islam, you neanderthals would still be in the Dark Ages. And to the person who commented about Palestinians rejoicing over 9/11, i do not blame you for being angry. Men, women, children died in those attacks. Think of the lives that were lost, the lives that could have been. It is truly horrifying that ANYONE would rejoice at those attacks. But please don't blame all Muslims. Please don't blame islam. Muslims are people too. We are individuals. We have differing political views depending on what part of the world we live in. The Palestinian people have been oppressed, driven off their land, forced to move to other countries, racially discriminated against within and by the State of Israel for the last 60+ years. Not all Palestinians are Muslims. A significant portion are Christians. Therefore, this phenomenon is limited to the Palestinian people, not every single Muslim in the world. But it is outright STUPID that anyone would rejoice at 9/11, ESPECIALLY Muslims. Those attacks have defamed islam for the last 10 years. Also, Muslims died in those attacks. There was a mosque in one of the towers where the plane hit http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/11/nyregion/11religion.html I am not asking to forget 9/11, nor to dishonor the victims, but please don't blame Muslims or Islam. All of us have been hurt by these attacks.

      September 11, 2011 at 12:27 am | Reply
  3. ron

    I really do not give a damn what they think about us. The image of a Palestinian newscaster on television the evening of September 11, was forever burned into my mind. She was having very difficult time trying not to smile during her report on the attacks. And she is one of the allegedly educated professionals, I expected the masses to be out dancing in the streets, but clearly there is nothing but bad will there and I have no use for them.

    September 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  4. John Stefanyszyn

    Outreach yields little improvement in Muslim view of US
    Analysis by Sr. State Dept Producer Elise Labott and Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

    Your analysis of the situation is skewed, because the reality and the results of the outreach by President Obama have been incredibly powerful in changing, not only the view of but also the desire for the Amrican way of life...the desire for freedom of rights and freedom of religion.

    It is incredible to see the actions that have been taken only 1 1/2 years after President Obama'a 2009 UN speech, in which he outlines his vision and pledge for freedom of rights in the world and in the middle east.

    The Muslim people have embraced a way of life and a belief that says...we want to live our lives according to the belief in freedom of rights...the way of self-rule...the way of America, which accepts peoples' worship of "one's faith of choice as their religion".

    Some of the American people may not be comfortable with the "Islam religion" but they will accept it because they recognize that the primary core belief of the American Mulsims and the Muslims in other countries is the belief in freedom of rights and freedom of religion.

    This world universal belief stipulates that all "religions" are equal in validity and that there is no singular, omni present, and true god....all are equal to each other and are to be respected as having the same right of existence and worship.

    However, there can be Only One Creator, One Truth, One Way, One Christ.
    ...this Christ is a reality and will be the "Only One" at His return.

    September 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • SKhan

      I agree. That is why we worship the same God, the one whom Christians call the "Father", and he is like a Father in some ways. And Christ, peace be upon him, contrary to popular belief is highly respected in Islam. The Quran calls him the Word of God/Spirit of God, the Messiah, the Son of Mary. We believe that he will return again to the world and save it from the Anti-Christ. And an entire chapter of the Quran is devoted to Mary, in which God "favored her above all the women of all the worlds", and Jesus' (peace be upon him) virgin birth is described (we also believe that Christ, peace be upon him, had the ability to speak when he was a mere infant). No woman other than Mary is mentioned in the Quran. Some Muslims even go so far as to believe that she is a prophet. Lastly, Christians are respected in the Quran. Although the Quran offers religious criticisms of Christianity (and Judaism) , Jews and Christians are called Ahl al Kitab (People of the Book/The Scriptures) and it is said that while some of them are disbelievers, others are very righteous and learned people. The Quran does not deny that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. It simply describes a way to be closer to God. I believe in freedom of religion. Whether you are a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or other, you should have the ability to practice your own religion. In a Chapter of the Quran, Surah Kaffirun (Chapter of the Disblievers/Coverers of the Truth), the Quran tells us to tell non-Muslims, that while some of us may not worship the same God, Muslims should believe in what they believe, and non-Muslims should be allowed to stick to their beliefs. A person is Muslim because he believes islam is the perfect religion, Christian because he believes Christianity is the perfect religion, Sikh because he believes that Sikhism is the perfect religion, etc. As-salamu-alaykum, peace be upon you.

      September 11, 2011 at 12:55 am | Reply
      • Reauland

        Thank you for this beautiful and well-written illustration of how not only Islam views other religions, but of how all religions should view and treat each other. The tolerance and acceptance so eloquently stated there are the salvation of the world.

        There may be many roads, but there is but one truth.

        Again, thank you 🙂

        September 30, 2011 at 6:49 am |

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