President Obama entered office promising a new dawn in America’s relations with Muslim nations. He reached out to the Muslim world, offering apologies and a warm embrace. The theory was that, by showing more understanding of Muslim grievances, they would respond in kind.
It didn’t turn out that way. A recent Pew Research Center survey of opinions in the Muslim world shows America’s image there has not improved. In Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan - Muslim nations with which the U.S. maintains close relations - views are more negative today than a year ago. Most Muslims disapprove of how Mr. Obama has responded to the Arab Spring.
If anything, paranoia about the U.S. is worse today than it was a few years ago. Most Muslims surveyed by Pew in March and April do not believe that Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the survey found no Muslim public in which even 30 percent accept the fact that Arabs conducted the attacks. Particularly depressing, Muslims in Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey - again countries with historically good ties to the West - are even less likely to believe it today than in 2006.
A paradox emerges in these findings. The more Westerners try to accept blame for bad relations with the Muslim world, the more the Muslim world blames Westerners. Almost 30 percent of Americans hold themselves responsible for bad relations with the Muslim world. Muslims mainly blame Westerners. Majorities in six of seven Muslim nations believe Westerners are mostly to blame. That figure goes as high as 75 percent in Turkey and 72 percent in Pakistan.
Which raises a question: If Muslim people are anti-Western because they believe, incorrectly, that Westerners are largely anti-Muslim, what can we do about it? Their grievances are so entrenched that very little of what Americans say or do will change their opinions because they are based not on reality, but on imagination.
Most Muslims also blame the West for their economic ills, even though their own economically oppressive governments are the root of the problem. America’s support of Israel is a huge negative in their eyes, but so, too, is our support for the regimes that rule over them. This may be understandable, but I doubt that a wholesale U.S. condemnation of regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab states would make Muslim publics any less anti-American. After all, the U.S. actually went to war to remove genocidal regimes in Bosnia and Iraq, and all we got for our trouble was widespread condemnation in the Muslim world, not to mention assertions that we did so mainly to kill Muslims.
Here’s the rub: The U.S. can try to do the right thing like removing genocidal regimes and abandoning oppressive authoritarians such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but it does little or nothing to change Muslim views of America. Muslims claim to want more democracy, of which America is the standard bearer, but their anti-American complexes and grievances are so huge that they are forever trying to find some third Muslim way that ignores hundreds of years of historical experience, born mainly in the West, of what works and what doesn’t.
This is not about who’s right or wrong. We can argue with Muslim nations all day long about our support for Israel, but it won’t make any difference. In fact, Israel could disappear tomorrow, and we would still have a problem. The root of the problem is a great historical divide, going back centuries, which will not be easily manipulated by public diplomacy programs or expressions of good will.
This is a problem to be managed, not solved. No amount of Obama-like engagement will change Muslim public opinion about America and the West. They hold their views for historically complex reasons, which more often than not are reflections of their internal problems rather than objective reactions to what we do.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.