Manipal, India — Anger against the United States within the Muslim "Ummah," or diaspora, has risen above the level aimed at the USSR after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The United States seems on course to overtake Israel as the primary object of hate. This despite a well-funded campaign to convince Muslims that Uncle Sam loves them and is eager for reciprocation.
Unfortunately, apart (presumably) from Muslims resident in the country itself, followers of Islam around the globe see the United States as determined to emasculate and finally eliminate them. Such views have been in vogue since the 1950s, so it would be inaccurate to credit this perception entirely to George W. Bush, great though his contribution has been.
Since 1945 the United States, after being isolationist for most of its previous history, has metamorphosed into the most interventionist nation since the inhabitants of Britain decided in droves during the 18th century to leave their insipid food and miserable climate behind and seize control of much of the globe. Sadly for the United States, this attempt at emulating Britain has simply reinforced Karl Marx's dictum that history the second time around converts itself from tragedy to farce. A historical evaluation of the strands that fuse into Muslim hatred for the United States would be too ambitious for this column, which will therefore confine itself to some of the reasons behind the current loathing.
George W. Bush and other U.S. policymakers often speak of their desire to "bring democracy to the Middle East" by "empowering the people" and backing "voices of moderation" within the Islamic world. They apparently see no irony in the use of such language when the two King Abdullahs, Pervez Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak and the Turkish General Staff -- to name a few -- are given U.S. cover.
Despite an oft- proclaimed partiality toward elected governments, Washington seems entirely comfortable with the fact that the militaries of the two top (republican) Muslim allies of the West refuse to accept civilian supremacy. Indeed, in the case of Pakistan (a "major non-NATO ally"), the military openly directs the government, jailing or deposing elected civilian leaders at whim.
In Turkey the army's role is more recessed, though it is evident just who has control over the trigger (and is willing to use it, especially domestically). In the cases of the Palestinian Authority and Iran, the elected governments are reviled, ignored and humiliated by the United States in favor of factions and individuals that enjoy scant or negative domestic popularity. In Lebanon, a similar situation is developing. Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, authoritarian regimes are buttressed by U.S. policies and assistance, despite protestations from both Washington and Brussels that they are engaged in "building democracy," most notably in Iraq.
After U.S., British and other European militaries invaded Iraq in 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair -- with the "legal" cover provided by a U.N. Security Council resolution which has in effect given Washington and London the power of life and death over Iraq and its people for an indefinite period -- it did not take long for a U.S. "administrator" to be appointed, with a few token Iraqi-origin individuals as "advisers." To date, those with Iraqi, as distinct from other, citizenship, have in practice been denied control over the administration of Iraq; even the local police force must defer to usually clueless U.S. military officers over the specifics of raids or issues relating to administering law and order.
Such remote control over the Iraqi component of the local government has led to demoralization and inertia within local staff, including even its "non-resident Iraqi" component. Whether it is core economic decisions such as the exploitation of oil wealth or the prioritization of expenditures for social amenities, the final word rests with the occupying powers, including on projects funded exclusively by domestically-generated resources. It does not require Al Jazeera to expose the patent absurdity of the Bush-Blair claim that Iraq is now a "liberated" country.
This disconnect is feeding resentment of the United States in Iraq that is steadily approaching the levels of Arab anger at the lack of control Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza have over their own lives. Indeed, a case can be made that the British in India devolved more freedom to the locals during their colonial rule than their descendants have in latter-day Iraq. Similarly, the patent and obtrusive U.S. backing for a cluster of despots in Muslim-majority countries elicits an angry sneer from Arabs each time Bush or Rice talk of "promoting democracy" in the Muslim world -- comments usually uttered in the company of such supporters of democracy as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or President Mubarak of Egypt.
As for Britain, while it correctly frowns on the racist despot Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, it lays out a red carpet at British Commonwealth meetings for Pakistan's military usurper Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, one reason why China enjoys a better image in the region is the absence of such cant from Beijing's rulers, who are open about their preference for convenience over principle.
It is precisely in countries where the direct influence of the United States is relatively low that local recruitment to al Qaeda is negligible or non-existent, and the U.S. image is good -- locations such as Malaysia and India, the second of which has 156 million Muslims as citizens. Even including the Wahabbi jihadists in Kashmir, there are fewer Islamic extremists in India than in countries such as the United States, Britain, the Netherlands or France, despite their much lower Muslim populations.
In 2002 this columnist argued for an "Asian NATO" (North America-Asia Treaty Organisation, or NAATO) that would link the two continents together in a security pact, the way NATO fuses North America with Europe. The need for NAATO is grounded in the reality of continuing resentment within Asia at Europe's colonial past, which creates a negative atmosphere whenever troops from that continent are inserted, as they have been in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, especially during the past two years, the Bush White House has followed a policy of relying exclusively on Europe to provide additional firepower for its operations in Asia, a policy that has created the very fires that it was meant to extinguish, especially in the Muslim world. This anger is sustained by the current occupation of two Muslim-majority countries by NATO since 9/11 and the U.S. backseat driving in most other such countries, especially those ruled by military or hereditary dictatorships. Oddly, even academics in the United States gloss over such an obvious dichotomy between precept and practice -- a chasm that is the subject of much attention in the Muslim world, especially in the "street" (as distinct from what this columnist would call the "supermarket," or the elite segment).
While President Bush may believe it possible to be half-pregnant, those with less evolved intellects would see that continued backing for military and hereditary authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world is incompatible with a better image within the Ummah. Unlike the perception in the West, the fact is that kingship and arbitrary rule are viewed negatively by most Muslims. It is not coincidental that visitors from India nowadays get a much warmer welcome in Pakistan than those from China or the United States, countries that back a military dictatorship detested by the local population. In contrast, India has always supported civilian supremacy over khaki.
If the image of the United States, and to a lesser extent the EU, is sliding within the Muslim world, the reason may lie less in the "civilizational hostility" of Muslims toward the West than in a longstanding policy toward the Muslim world that appears to many to be based on hypocrisy and opportunism, a policy made all the more conspicuous by the repeated verbal expressions of support for "moderation" and "democracy" within the Muslim countries.
As do Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims too prefer democracy to despotism, but are aware that the primary international backers of domestic authoritarian rulers are often the same countries that speak of human rights while in the profitable company of those with a very different view of what constitutes acceptable behavior. This chasm between words and deeds is particularly visible in U.S. dealings with the Muslim world. In a world where the United States is the biggest engine of innovation and growth, what is bad news for that country is bad news for the rest of the world.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University.)