Study Offers a New Take on Why Some Muslims Hate America

By Patrick Goodenough | June 21, 2012 | 4:17 AM EDT

A new study argues that anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries has less to do with Muslim perceptions of what America is culturally or what it does politically, but on the degree of competition between the political elites within the country itself. (AP Photo)

( – Why do they hate us? Confronting a question that many Americans have asked about Muslims since 9/11, two political scientists have come up with a theory they believe may hold part of the answer.

Anti-American sentiment, they said, is not primarily due to inherent Muslim aversion to aspects of U.S. culture, or even a reaction to U.S. foreign policy – but a phenomenon found to be worse in societies where there is greater competition between Islamist and secular-nationalist political factions.

In such societies, political elites in both the Islamist and secular-nationalist camps use anti-Americanism as an effective tool to win public support, argued Lisa Blaydes of Stanford University’s department of political science, and Drew Linzer of Emory University’s department of political science.

The new study, published in Cambridge University Press’ American Political Science Review and released Wednesday, used data from a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of nearly 13,000 Muslim respondents in 21 widely-differing predominantly Muslim countries.

“Analysis of a huge amount of survey data collected from 13,000 Muslims in 21 countries showed that those countries where people expressed the most anti-American views were also those where two powerful political elites (one Islamist and one secular) were competing fiercely with each other for supporters,” the study found. “In countries where this did not apply, the amount of anti-Americanism expressed was significantly lower.”

“Although more observant Muslims tend to be more anti-American, paradoxically the most anti-American countries are those in which Muslim populations are less religious overall, and thus more divided on the religious–secular issue dimension,” said Blaydes and Linzer.

In a case study, Turkey and Senegal provided a stark contrast. Both countries have populations that are almost entirely Muslim, but judging from the 2007 Pew results, are very different:

--Percentage of those calling themselves highly observant religiously:  Turkey 36,  Senegal 83

--Percentage of those who perceive a struggle in their society between fundamentalists and reformists:  Turkey 71, Senegal 14

--Percentage of those viewing the U.S. favorably: Turkey 10,  Senegal 70

“There is little to be gained in the context of Senegalese politics by criticizing the United States; as such, Muslims in Senegal are among the most pro-American in the world,” Blaydes and Linzer wrote in the study.

In Turkey, by contrast, anti-Americanism “is embraced by nearly all segments of Turkish society, and both secular nationalists and Islamists engage in stridently anti-American rhetoric.”

The academics acknowledged that media outlets’ portrayal of the U.S. play a significant role, but asserted that competing national politicians are the main drivers behind high levels of hatred of America.

“When the struggle for political control between two factions escalates, they both tend to

ramp up anti-American appeals to boost their own mass support with the result that political debate in certain countries is more or less saturated with anti-American messages,” Blaydes said in a release. “This means that larger numbers of Muslims hear, consider, and are led to adopt anti-American attitudes.”

“Conversely we found that in Islamic countries where the battle for local supremacy has already been won by those who are more religious, neither side of the political divide had strong incentives to invoke grievances against the U.S. to recruit supporters and hence the level of anti-Americanism among citizens was lower.”

The authors said the finding could have far-reaching effects on how the U.S. conducts its outreach to Islamic countries

“A core assumption made by those who advocate increasing investment in public diplomacy campaigns is that anti-Americanism stems from poor ‘strategic communication’ on the part of the U.S.,” they said.

“The results of our study suggest, instead, that Muslim publics are highly responsive to messages from their own domestic elites and the media that report what they say about America.

“Any American-led effort to change the story in the most anti-American countries will have to find a way to counter the effects on Muslim minds of local politicians spouting  anti-U.S. rhetoric in order to bolster their own positions and win supporters,” they concluded.

A new Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, released last week, found that just 12 percent of respondents in Pakistan, 15 percent in Turkey, and 19 percent in Egypt expressed favorable views of the United States.

In all three of those countries, anti-U.S. sentiment has for years been prevalent among both Islamists and secularists, and features strongly in local media reporting and commentary.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow