Flynt appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story late last week to discuss “What Is Fueling Anti-American Protests?” across the Muslim world, see here. He also taped a video, posted on the Web sites for Penn State’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law, on the same subject, see here.
As Hillary noted in one of her media appearances last week, see here, Americans “have not even begun to grapple with the enormity of the challenge we face [in the Middle East] as countries become more politically participatory, and people have a voice.” In his appearances, Flynt examined some of the reasons for Americans’ reluctance in this regard. As he explained on the Penn State video,
“There is a tendency among Americans to want to see this as Arabs, Muslims reacting against various aspects of American culture—American liberalism, gender equality, freedom of religion, these kinds of things. And so when we see manifestations of anti-Americanism in this part of the world, many Americans, as a kind of default setting, want to attribute it to this. I think that what public opinion polls and other more objective indicators show is that anti-American sentiment in this part of the world is very, very much a reaction to particular policies, particular actions that the United States undertakes.”
Thus, as Flynt argues on Al Jazeera,
“If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else that triggered an outburst—a manifestation of very, very deep-seated, longstanding resentment in Arab and Muslim societies about many important aspects of American foreign policy toward the region. When Americans think about this, they will tend to want to say that this a cultural issue—that there is something about Islam or that Arabs are insufficiently modernized to be able to keep something like this film in proper perspective. I think that it’s Americans who are having a cultural problem here, and who aren’t really able to keep things like this film in proper perspective. The proper perspective, at least from the vantage of the Muslim world, is that the United States has been, for many years now, an aggressive and a repressive force in the region. That’s the way the United States is perceived; every serious public opinion poll in the region would show that. And until the United States is prepared to come to terms with that reality, its own strategic position in this region is going to continue to decline precipitously.”
Reflecting what we believe is the mainstream view among American elites, one of the other panelists, Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East—counters that President Obama and his administration “fell that they have tried very hard, actually, to improve relations with the Muslim world.” While Michele does not “necessarily think that the administration has done everything right in trying to do that,” nevertheless, “in all of this, the element of opposition to U.S. policies is probably the least. This is very much parallel to the Danish cartoon [controversy] a few years ago…Was that fuelled by an underlying hatred of Danish foreign policy in the Middle East? No, it wasn’t. It was the specific perceived offense to Islam”—along with, she argues, Salafis maneuvering to upstage more moderate Islamist elements and security services that haven’t been “reformed and stood up again”—that are driving the current wave of unrest.
Flynt takes on these arguments, starting with the notion that “Obama really tried to put things on a better footing in the Muslim world.” There were, he reminds, “a couple of high-profile speeches in Obama’s first year in office. In terms of his policies in the region, he is basically pursuing George W. Bush’s policies in the region—except on some things like the use of drones to kill people in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, he has doubled down on the Bush administration’s policies. And polls would show that, after a very brief bump in U.S. standing after Obama was elected, people saw what his administration actually did, and the popularity of the U.S. is, by some polls, even lower today than it was when Bush left office.”
Flynt holds that the current wave of anti-American unrest “is not fundamentally about Salafis or unreformed security services.” He notes that “public opinion in the Muslim world is probably not that radically different today than five years ago”; in that regard, a context of intense popular resentment over U.S. (and Western) foreign policy in the Middle East is probably as important a factor for understanding the unrest over the notorious Danish cartoons as it is for understanding the current wave of anti-American protests.
Flynt suggests that what is different today, “in countries touched by the Arab spring and in other countries in the Muslim world, is that public opinion matters more…If you have any kind of movement in these societies toward political structures that are more reflective [of their populations’ views], that is guaranteed to get you political orders—governments—that are going to be, for perfectly legitimate reasons, less enthusiastic, to say the least, about strategic cooperation with the United States.” And that “is a losing proposition for the United States.”
We close by noting a particularly timely observation from the other panelist on the Inside Story episode, Oxford University’s Tariq Ramadan. In considering “the perception of American policy” in the Muslim world, Prof. Ramadan warns against forgetting “what is said today and what Israel is saying about Iran…If something happened, after what we are witnessing in the region now, with an attack or Netanyahu going too far in this direction, no one can predict what will be the consequences.” Americans would do well to ponder those words as they consider how to react to Netanyahu’s statements on American television yesterday, urging them to vote for a president who will draw clear “red lines” regarding Iran’s continued development of (internationally supervised) nuclear fuel cycle capabilities—and enforce them with military force, if Tehran should continue to exercise its legal rights.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett