Why do they love/hate us? U.S.-Muslim relations are fraught with complications

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The wave of rage against America that has rolled across the 1.6 billion-strong Muslim world thanks to the witless film deriding the Prophet Muhammad has raised an important question for Americans: Why do they hate us so much?

I prefer to put the question in a broader context, drawing from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

Why do I hate thee? Let me count those ways, too.

In general, I have found overseas attitudes toward the United States and Americans to be a combination of the two, love and hate.

"How do I love thee?"

First of all, foreigners, including Muslims, remain fascinated by the vigor and creativity of American culture, ranging from Carly Rae Jepson's "Call Me Maybe," to Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans, to Jerry Lewis. There remains an endless fascination with American movies and stars. Unfortunately, some U.S. cultural and commercial exports, such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, have become the targets of mobs in a few Islamic capitals. (As far as I can tell the attacks have had nothing to do with campaigns against obesity.)

Second in the love category, although it now seems a long time in the past, the United States played a large role in promoting the cause of anti-colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, particularly when it told European allies in World War II, as they had their backs against the wall resisting Germany and Japan, that they would have to give up their colonies once the war was over. The Atlantic Charter put it quite flatly in 1941, asserting the right of all people to self-determination.

The United States followed up over subsequent decades, supporting the process of decolonization to its virtual completion. U.S. flagship actions included firm opposition to the British, French and Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956 and the decisions by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy to recognize and establish embassies in African countries as they achieved their independence.

Third, in spite of the recent violence in the Muslim world directed against the United States, there also has been recognition of the U.S. role in supporting the Arab Spring and rejecting dictators on behalf of freedom. Benghazi, Libya, was where the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues were murdered, but Libyans there also demonstrated in support of the four diplomats and the United States, followed by a fierce effort to disarm the militias involved in the attack on the U.S. consulate.

Now, "How do I hate thee?"

U.S. policies that have fostered hatred in the Muslim world are the product of successive Republican and Democratic administrations. It would be unfortunate if either of this year's presidential candidates, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, nailed down in advance any piece of U.S. foreign policy in a way that would cut into the next administration's flexibility in this area.

The oldest problem is the U.S. failure since 1948 to broker a two-state agreement that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel and allow both to live in peace side-by-side. The United States and the world are going round and round again on this issue. The so-called Middle East peace process is, again, buzzard food.

President Obama tried to pick up that snarling porcupine in 2009, just after he came to office. When it bit him -- i.e., both sides resisted -- he dropped the effort. Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, who showed the patience of a saint in achieving the 1998 Good Friday accord between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, threw in his hand on the Middle East peace non-process last year.

A second obvious problem in U.S.-Muslim relations is the fact that America has waged war in two Muslim nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, over the past 11 years. Afghanistan was perfectly justifiable after 9/11, and Muslims understood well its basis. What they don't get is why we stay on.

As for Iraq -- President George W. Bush's unjustified, reelection-driven war based on the false premises that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links with al-Qaida -- they don't get that at all. And they couldn't possibly understand the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and places of detention in Afghanistan, the rendition of U.S. prisoners to other countries, U.S. drone attacks, American soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses and burning holy Islamic texts, and, perhaps most painful of all, the indefinite detention without due process of law of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay -- despite Mr. Obama's pre-election pledge to close the facility.

Now, how much of the problems between the United States and Muslims are a result of the centuries-long contest between Christian and Islamic peoples and states is hard to say. There is some ugly history there. So far, the Obama administration has managed not to utter the word "crusade." Mr. Bush and then Mr. Obama have both been clear that they don't hold 9/11 or anything else against Muslims as such, and they've reiterated that Muslims, too, were victims of the 2001 attacks.

I am glad to see foreign policy being discussed in this year's presidential campaign, but there remains an ineluctable argument for exercising serious restraint.


Dan Simpson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and a former U.S. ambassador (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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