Muslims’ love-hate affair with America



Indonesians may love Hollywood movies, big Macs and Madonna, but their anger towards Americans has grown since 9/11.

Indonesian attitudes towards the United States is marked by deep schizophrenic tendencies.

For the MTV generation and the affluent middle class in Indonesia, there is a love affair with things American – food, fashion, media, education and Hollywood stars.

McDonald’s and the thumping rhythm of discos playing to the tunes of Madonna and Michael Jackson compete with the drone of the traditional gamelan and Friday prayers at the mosque.

America’s soft power is all so alluring.

At another level, however, many Indonesians abhor American hard power.

TV footage of tanks rumbling through the streets of Baghdad or fighter planes bombing strategic targets in Iraq or Afghanistan, and more importantly, the war on terrorism, have left a bitter aftertaste of US policies.

Two years after Sept 11, Indonesian anger towards the Americans is greater than ever.

According to a report by a panel of experts commissioned by the Bush administration, only 15 per cent of Indonesians viewed the US favourably, compared with 61 per cent last year.

What explains this rapid downward spiral? The answer is simple for Indonesian Muslims: US arrogance in conducting
international relations.

In fact, such perceptions are based on historical antecedents. Indonesians have not forgotten how Washington backed separatist elements in the country in the 1950s and how it sought to intervene in critical junctures of its post-war history.

US-educated Ms Imbi Pulongan, 32, told The Straits Times: ‘The US is this big bully pursuing its own interest at the expense of other countries like Indonesia. It uses force to get what it wants.’

Central to such attitudes is US policy in the Middle East that is viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most Indonesians believe that Washington is not even-handed in dealing with the Palestinian problem.

Said Mr Zaki Mansoer, 33, director of monthly Muslim magazine Panjimas: ‘The United States needs to do more to show that it is being fair. How does it expect to inspire confidence and win support in the Muslim world if it takes the side of Israel most of the time.’

The US war on terrorism is also a sore point. For many here, it has turned into a war on all Muslims, with Washington blurring the line between Islam and extremism.

Said Ms Rahimah Abdulrahim, 29, a researcher at the Habibie Centre in Jakarta: ‘They have painted a broad brush linking the two even if George Bush keeps saying that this is not a war on Islam. The fact is that it has now turned into a war on all Muslim countries.’

What solutions do Indonesian Muslims have to offer to defuse this antipathy towards the US?

They are short on specifics but almost all those interviewed make clear the need to create policies ‘that does not give the impression that it is one-sided in its dealings with Muslim countries’.

Mr Zaki explained: ‘The important thing is that the Americans do not pay lip service to whatever happens, for example, in the Middle East. Propaganda and a lot of sweet talk and slick advertisements can be counter-productive.’

In the end, Muslims here make clear that their gripe with the US is with the government and not ordinary Americans.

‘We hate the policies of the Bush administration. But we have nothing against the American people,’ said Ms Rahimah, who once served as a US congressional fellow.

Washington might be ready to implement a slew of proposals to improve its image in the Muslim world.

This includes improved public diplomacy, more language training for diplomats and spending more money on programmes such as scholarships, translating books and US broadcasting.

American soft power might win a few more friends.

But the bottom line is that unless there are major changes to its policies, Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere are going to keep growing further apart. Sharp drop in image ratings

This March, more than two-thirds of the Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan saw the US as a greater threat than Iraq.

Only 15 per cent of Indonesians view the US favourably, down from 61 per cent last year.

Only 15 per cent of Turks view the US favourably, down from 52 per cent in 2000.

Just 2 per cent of British Muslims agree that ‘the US supports democracy’.

Outside the Arab-Muslim world, 49 per cent of Spaniards have a very unfavourable view of the US.

Source: The Advisory Group for Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World

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