All the World’s A Stage: America’s Image in the Muslim World

All the World’s A Stage: America’s Image in the Muslim World

SIMPLY PUT, America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal. Iraq, the war on terrorism, American support for Israel and other key features of U.S. foreign policy continue to generate animosity in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. In many nations considered central to the war on terror, the general public deeply distrusts the United States. Even in countries like Kuwait that have long been considered relatively pro-American, the U.S. image has declined.

On the bright side, America seems to be winning the battle of ideas on some important fronts. First and foremost, support for terrorism has declined dramatically over the last few years in many Muslim countries. Fewer Muslims now consider suicide bombing justifiable, and confidence in Osama bin Laden has waned. Moreover, the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed the extent to which there is broad support for democracy, capitalism and globalization throughout all regions of the world, including Muslim nations. Support for American ideas, however, does not necessarily translate into warm feelings for the United States. Instead, Muslims believe the United States fails to live up to its rhetoric on democracy, and they tend to blame the United States for the aspects of globalization they do not like.

Much of the resentment the United States faces in Muslim countries is driven by perceptions of American power and fears about how America wields its might. Many Muslims distrust U.S. motives, and they worry that our country’s considerable military strength may someday be targeted at them. Even in the realm of culture, many Muslims fear their own traditions may be displaced by creeping Americanization. World events have deepened these fears in recent years, and opposition to U.S. foreign policy has entrenched anti-Americanism.

Fall from Grace

THE PEW Global Attitudes Project has tracked America’s declining image throughout much of the world over the last several years. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of people with a favorable view of the United States fell in twenty-six countries out of the thirty-three where trend data are available. Ratings of the United States are disturbingly low among many of our longtime European allies, and they have dipped in Latin America and other parts of the world as well. The findings are especially dismal in Muslim nations.


Pew surveyed forty-seven countries in 2007 and found that in nine of them, less than 30% of the population gave the United States a favorable rating—tellingly, all but one of those countries were predominantly Muslim (the lone exception being Argentina).1 Turkey had the dubious distinction of giving the United States its lowest score—only nine out of one hundred Turks hold a favorable view of the United States, down a stunning forty-three percentage points from a U.S. State Department survey in 2000. In some Muslim nations, America’s image has rebounded slightly from its 2003 low, but these improvements have generally been quite modest. Any progress is welcome, of course, but clearly the numbers remain quite grim. For example, the 2007 poll found that 20% of Jordanians held a positive view of the United States, up from only 1% in a poll conducted just two months after the start of the Iraq War. Similarly, U.S. favorability in the Palestinian territories climbed from less than 1% in 2003 to 13% in 2007.

Anti-Americanism in Muslim countries runs deep. For instance, in addition to their unfavorable views of the United States as a country, many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere see the American people in a negative light—less than one-third of Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Pakistanis and Turks have a positive opinion of Americans. In a 2005 Pew study, Muslims from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia consistently characterized Americans as greedy, violent, rude and immoral. Few, on the other hand, labeled Americans as honest.

Disapproval and Distrust

WHAT DRIVES these anti-American sentiments? Most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity. The war in Iraq both solidified anti-Americanism in the Arab Middle East and extended it to other parts of the Muslim world, such as Turkey and Indonesia. But it is not just Iraq—other key features of American foreign policy are also widely unpopular. Solid majorities in all thirteen predominantly Muslim publics surveyed by Pew in 2007 agreed that the United States should remove its troops from Iraq. Yet, almost equally large majorities in all thirteen felt U.S. and NATO forces should be removed from Afghanistan, too.

Most of the Muslim world overwhelmingly opposes the U.S.-led war on terrorism. That includes countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, usually considered key partners in the fight against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. And a 2006 Pew poll found that the war on terror is extremely unpopular among Muslims in Britain, France, Germany and Spain—a troubling finding, given the importance of those communities in preventing terrorist attacks in the West. Many Muslims think Americans’ fears about terrorism are overblown—when asked in 2004 whether the United States is right to be so concerned about the threat of international terrorism or whether it is overreacting to this threat, majorities of Jordanians, Moroccans, Pakistanis and Turks answered the latter.

Perceptions of U.S. policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also feed anti-Americanism. Large majorities of the Muslim publics Pew has surveyed over the last few years believe American foreign policy is too pro-Israel. Of course, this sentiment is shared by many non-Muslims as well—62% of the French general public and 57% in Germany agree. Even in Israel a 42% plurality says the United States favors their country too much. But in Muslim—and especially Arab—countries, this issue is clearly more salient. There, the belief that American policy slants toward Israel is almost universal: more than 80% of Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Kuwaitis and Moroccans say the United States has a pro-Israel bias.

But concerns about the United States go beyond any single policy. To a large extent, America is disliked in the Muslim world because of its power—and especially because of how it is perceived to be using it. Unrivaled since the end of the cold war and on the offensive since the 9/11 attacks, the United States is seen as a menacing giant, using its considerable strength without regard for others. When asked whether the United States takes into account the interests of countries like theirs when making foreign-policy decisions, only 14% of Turks, 12% of Palestinians and 9% of Moroccans said it does. Even in Kuwait, which after all was liberated by American troops in 1991, only 30% in Pew’s 2007 poll said the United States considers their interests a great deal or fair amount, down from 61% in 2003.

Muslims also worry that America’s military strength might someday be directed at them. In the eleven predominantly Muslim countries where the question was asked in 2007, at least 60% said they were very or somewhat worried that the United States could become a military threat to their country someday. And more than three out of four (76%) say this in Turkey—a country that has been a NATO ally of the United States for over half a century. Turks most often named the United States (64%) the nation that poses the greatest potential threat to their country, with Iraq (13%) and Russia (9%) a quite-distant second and third. The notion of a U.S. military attack on Turkey may seem far-fetched to many Americans, but in 2004, Turkish authors Burak Turna and Orkun Ucar tapped into these fears with great commercial success. Their novel Metal Storm features a U.S.-Turkish war that ultimately ends with a nuclear attack on Washington, DC. One of the fastest-selling books in the country’s history, it was reportedly widely read in the Turkish cabinet and Foreign Ministry.

And there is also considerable distrust of American intentions. In 2004, majorities in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey said the U.S.-led war on terrorism was not a sincere effort. Respondents in these countries identified a litany of ulterior motives: controlling Middle Eastern oil, protecting Israel, targeting unfriendly Muslim governments and, most ominously, dominating the world.


Many do not even trust American explanations regarding the event that led to the war on terror—the 9/11 attacks. Suspicion of American motives runs so deep that many now question al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the tragedy. Astonishingly, less than half of Muslims surveyed in 2006 in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, Britain, France, Germany and Spain believed the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The number of Turks believing Arabs were responsible actually dropped to 16% in 2006, down from 46% in 2002 when the Gallup Organization asked about this issue.

Finally, American power is deeply resented across the globe, especially in Muslim countries. Many feel as though there is no real check on U.S. power. Due to its status as the sole superpower, when the United States decides to carry out a policy, the world must simply live with the consequences. In December 2001, Pew asked political, media, business, cultural and government elites from around the world what ordinary people in their countries thought about 9/11; they consistently said people felt it was good that Americans now know what it is like to be vulnerable. This was especially true among elites from Muslim countries—73% said most or many ordinary people felt this way. Of course, this in no way implies that average citizens supported the attacks. But it does reveal that, only months after the tragedy, international reactions to 9/11 were already greatly affected by America’s unique role in the world.

A Glimmer of Hope

THERE IS little evidence to suggest the rise of anti-Americanism is a result of a rejection of America’s core political and economic values. While it is certainly true that al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists “hate our freedoms,” they represent a small minority in the Muslim world. Instead, surveys show that the key tenets of democracy and globalization are widely embraced.

One challenge is that Muslims tend to believe the United States is inconsistent when it comes to democracy. When in 2007 Pew asked whether the United States promotes democracy wherever it can or mostly where it serves its interests, Muslims overwhelmingly answered the latter. And stories about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guant?namo have added to the perception that America does not always practice the respect for individual rights it espouses. Pew polling from 2006 showed that large numbers of Muslims in many parts of the world had seen, heard or read reports about Abu Ghraib and Guant?namo.

There is also broad support among Muslims for the key economic features of capitalism and globalization. Solid majorities throughout the Muslim nations surveyed in 2007 agree that free markets are good for society, even though some people may be rich and others poor. Most also believe multinational companies are having a positive impact on their countries. And support for international trade is higher in Muslim countries than in the economically advanced nations of the West.

But Muslims and others throughout the world do see negative aspects to globalization, and they often blame the United States for these downsides. For instance, although there is broad acceptance of globalization’s principal economic features, there is also a growing concern about the gap between rich and poor. And majorities in most of the Muslim populations Pew has surveyed believe American policies are increasing that disparity between countries.

Another downside to globalization is the risk to the environment posed by economic growth. The 2007 Pew survey highlighted the degree to which environmental concerns have increased in every region of the globe, and Muslim countries are no exception. Consistently, publics worldwide, regardless of income level, say that the environment should be a priority, even if that results in less economic growth. Particularly problematic for America, Muslims and non-Muslims alike generally think the United States is doing more to harm the environment than any other country.

A final concern about globalization is its impact on traditional cultures. On this issue, globalization equals “Americanization.” Pew’s polling shows both Muslims and non-Muslims worry about losing their traditions. In particular, they worry about having their traditions supplanted by American customs and ideas. People feel like they are getting a little too much America in their own communities and lives.

So anti-Americanism is not driven by a rejection of globalization. It is, however, exacerbated by the concerns people have about certain aspects of globalization. Due to its role as the dominant power in the world politically, economically, militarily and culturally, the United States bears the brunt of international frustrations about the negative features of a globalized world.

Think Positively

WHILE THE findings regarding America’s image abroad can often be rather discouraging, it is important to keep in mind that there are some bright spots in the data, even some bright spots among Muslim publics. First, the Muslim world is not monolithic, and in particular, it is not monolithically anti-American. Many West African Muslims, for example, are quite pro-American—in the 2007 Pew poll, 78% of Muslims in Mali and 69% in Senegal said they have a favorable view of the United States. Nigerian Muslims are roughly split between those with a positive (49%) and a negative (47%) opinion, as are Ethiopian (48% favorable, 49% unfavorable) and Tanzanian Muslims (41% favorable, 45% unfavorable) in East Africa.

Even among Arab nations there is some variation. While America’s popularity has waned considerably in Kuwait in recent years, Kuwaiti Muslims remain roughly divided between those with a positive (43%) and negative (48%) view. The 2007 poll highlighted the extent to which Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have positive opinions of the United States (52% favorable, 47% unfavorable), although Lebanese Shia hold distinctly negative views (7% favorable, 92% unfavorable). ABC News polling in Afghanistan and Iraq has identified other pockets of support—both Afghans and Iraqi Kurds hold favorable views of the United States and welcome continued American involvement in their countries.

A second set of encouraging findings is that even in Muslim countries where the United States is unpopular, there is often considerable admiration for some aspects of America. The American people are generally characterized as hardworking and inventive. There is praise for U.S. scientific and technological achievements. And even in nations where positive feelings about the United States are rare, many people admire American ways of doing business. For example, 51% of Jordanians, 48% of Egyptians and 40% of Palestinians say they like U.S. business practices. These numbers obviously do not represent overwhelming majorities, but they are relatively high when compared to other indicators of America’s image.

Third, American foreign policy may remain quite unpopular in most Muslim countries, but one of the most important goals of U.S. policy is largely being met in these same nations: support for terrorism is on the decline. Among Middle Eastern, Asian and African Muslims, there have been steep drops in the number of people who say suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam are defensible. The most dramatic change has taken place in Lebanon—in 2002, roughly three-in-four Lebanese Muslims said these types of attacks are often or sometimes justified; today, 34% express this view. Of course, any amount of support for terrorism is troubling, and the degree of support remains high in many places, especially the Palestinian territories. But the trend is generally headed in the right direction.

Similarly, support for Osama bin Laden has fallen sharply. In 2003, 56% of Jordanians had confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs; today, just 20% express such confidence. Among Lebanese, confidence in bin Laden has dropped from 20% to a minuscule 1%. Again, any positive feelings about the leader of al-Qaeda are disturbing, but the trend on this question is encouraging.

Bombing 2 

Finally, data from Pew and other organizations suggest that anti-Americanism is not intractable. There is evidence, albeit modest at this point, that events and policies can turn things around. One of the most frequently cited cases in this regard is Indonesia. At the beginning of this decade, the United States was relatively popular in Indonesia, but with the start of the Iraq War, America’s favorability rating plummeted from 61% in 2002 to 15% in 2003. It rebounded to 38% in 2005 after the United States provided aid to Indonesia following the tragic December 2004 tsunami. Since then, it has tapered off slightly, sliding to 30% in 2006 and 29% in 2007, but has not returned to its 2003 low point.

The Bigger Picture

ANTI-AMERICANISM IN the Muslim world thrives within a context of broader tensions between Muslims and Westerners. In 2006—after a twelve-month period punctuated by the London bombings, riots by Muslim youths in France and the controversy over the publication of cartoons in Denmark portraying the prophet Muhammad—the Pew Global Attitudes Project set out to explore these tensions and to gain a better understanding of how Westerners and Muslims perceive one another. The results from the 2006 survey reveal a clear consensus that relations between Muslims and the West are poor, and both sides do a fair amount of finger pointing.

As these findings underlined, Muslims often hold an aggrieved view of the West. They blame Western nations not only for the poor state of relations with Muslim nations, but also for the economic problems of many Muslim countries. Large numbers of Muslims characterize Westerners as selfish, violent and arrogant, while few see those in the West as generous, tolerant or respectful of women. And they don’t believe people in the West respect Islam. The cartoon issue was a good example of this tension—while Westerners felt this was a controversy driven by Muslim intolerance, Muslims tended to see it as an example of Western disrespect for their faith.

At least half of Muslims surveyed in nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey said that most or many Americans, as well as many or most Europeans, are hostile toward Muslims. Interestingly, they were about as likely to say Europeans are hostile as they were to say Americans are hostile.

So in some respects, negative attitudes towards the United States are reflected in broader attitudes about the West. What separates anti-Americanism from what we might think of as “anti-Westernism,” however, is the element of U.S. power, and especially how Muslims perceive the United States projecting its power in Muslim nations. Muslims in many parts of the world may be angry at the Danes because of the cartoon dispute, but they do not feel particularly threatened by them.

Bin Laden   

A Time for Redemption

A LOOK at the trend data on these issues suggests that improving America’s image problems is not impossible. Yet, the data are equally clear on the enormity of the challenge. Big events and major policies led to the negative trends and depressing numbers we have seen over the last few years, and it will take big events and major policies to significantly move the needle in a positive direction. As long as the United States remains the world’s dominant power, there will always be some trepidation about its intentions and actions. Because of the unpopularity of President Bush, a new administration may be given a fresh look by many Muslims in 2009. But regardless of who inherits the White House next, the job of turning around America’s image will remain a difficult task.

Andrew Kohut is the president of the Pew Research Center, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, and the director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Richard Wike is the associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

1The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey was conducted among representative national samples in all countries except Bolivia, Brazil, China, India, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, South Africa and Venezuela, where the samples were disproportionately or exclusively urban. For more details see

Other Articles by Andrew Kohut:


“Simply put, America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal.” With the deepening and unrelenting challenges we face in the Middle East, how much has America’s image in the Muslim world declined? And what can we do to reverse the trends? What an analysis of the polling numbers says about America’s reputation.

Other Articles by Richard Wike:


“Simply put, America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal.” With the deepening and unrelenting challenges we face in the Middle East, how much has America’s image in the Muslim world declined? And what can we do to reverse the trends? What an analysis of the polling numbers says about America’s reputation.