WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama readies a speech aimed at resetting America's relationships in the Middle East, at least one social scientist would urge him to consider the deep-seated anger and sense of betrayal he says Muslims feel toward U.S. foreign policy.
Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and author of "Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America," says from Morocco to Indonesia, Muslims "are singing from the same song sheet" of feeling oppressed by an America that cares more about oil and siding with Israel than truly supporting the democratic aspirations that have flowered during the recent Arab Spring.
Kull presented his key findings Wednesday at a briefing at the Brookings Institution, which published the book that draws upon five years of polling, focus groups and visits to Muslim majority countries. Although Kull conducted the research from 2006 to 2010, before the current pro-democracy uprisings, his findings track with a newly released Pew Research Center report. The report found that Obama's efforts to rehabilitate America's image among Muslims after they frayed during the Bush administration's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have paid few dividends.
Kull's offered four key takeaways from his research that should prove challenging for U.S. policymakers. According to him, a majority of Muslims:
- Feel threatened by U.S. military force and share a belief that "the United States pushes people around [and] abuses its power." The presence of American troops across the region is interpreted as "a scheme to steal oil" that smacks of colonialism. While most Muslims do not approve of al Qaeda's violent tactics, a large majority agree with its goal to rid Islamic countries of U.S. forces.
- Believe the United States is hostile to Islam and wants to impose its own secular culture or Christian religion on Muslim countries. Many took George W. Bush's post-9/11 vow to launch a "crusade" against terrorism literally, interpreting it in the millennial-old historic context of a religious war.
- Resent U.S. support for Israel and believe America's goal is to expand the geographic borders of the Jewish state. Many see Israel as a proxy for U.S. hegemony in the region, and most don't believe the establishment of a Palestinian state is a U.S. goal. The exception: six in 10 Palestinians say the United States does want to see them with their own state.
- Are convinced the United States has undermined democratic movements in the Middle East in favor of propping up authoritarian regimes. While recent events may supersede that finding, Kull also found solid majorities say Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood should be encouraged to organize political parties and take part in democratically elected governments.
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert who moderated the discussion of Kull's findings, noted that they belied the conservative trope that Muslims in the guise of extremist groups "hate us for our values." Instead, the research indicates "exactly the opposite" -- that many Muslims are attracted to the democratic values espoused by the United States, but feel betrayed because Americans have so often not lived up to their own standards.