Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote a couple of columns about our efforts to explain ourselves and our actions in the War On Terrorism to the rest of the world. In those columns I asked a perplexing question: "Why do they hate us?"
I don't think I came up with a convincing answer to that question but now, thanks to a thought-provoking article in the current issue of "Foreign Policy" magazine, I'll try again. In my earlier columns, I discussed anti-Americanism in terms of "public diplomacy" -- overseas information and cultural programs -- which was my specialty in the U.S. Foreign Service for nearly 30 years. Today, however, I'll tell you about the provocative theories of Prof. Fouad Ajami, an Arab-American intellectual who teaches at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
In an article titled "The Falseness of Anti-Americanism," Prof. Ajami argues that "anti-Americanism was already entrenched in the world's psyche -- a backlash against a nation that comes bearing modernism to those who want it, but also fear and despise it." In other words, he's writing about the eternal love-hate syndrome between the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.
"The pollsters have flaunted spreadsheets to legitimize a popular legend," Prof. Ajami writes. "It is not Americans that people abroad hate, but the United States!" He contends that the pollsters' reports are "one dimensional and filled with panic." For example, he cites a recent study by the Pew Research Center, which found that "the war in Iraq has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans" and "further inflamed the Muslim world." But Ajami reminds us that "these sentiments have long prevailed in Jordan, Egypt and France." So what else is new?
Ajami notes that "much has been made of the sympathy that the French expressed for Americans immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks," but adds that a leading French editorial writer charged that the U.S. "was reaping the whirlwind of its 'cynicism,'" and even "recycled the hackneyed charge that Osama bin Laden had been created and nurtured by U.S. intelligence agencies." This means that the poll results aren't nearly as dramatic as they've been made out to be by the pollsters and U.S. foreign policy critics because there was already plenty of anti-Americanism prior to our invasion of Iraq.
In Ajami's opinion, the U.S. "would have had to turn the other cheek to the murderers of al-Qaeda (and) spare the Taliban" in order to maintain the sympathy of France and its most influential daily, "Le Monde." And ironically, in Saudi Arabia, where anti-Americanism runs rampant, "The ruling elite are formed and educated ... on the campuses of Harvard, Princeton and Stanford."
I know that the current wave of anti-Americanism wasn't born on Sept. 11 because I experienced many instances of virulent anti-Americanism in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. On several occasions, there were massive demonstrations against U.S. policies in front of the American Embassy in Mexico City when I served there 30 years ago. But the next morning, thousands of Mexicans were lined up outside the Embassy hoping to obtain visas allowing them to emigrate to the U.S., which gave rise to a new slogan: "Yankee go home, but take me with you."
Ajami refers to this continuing hypocrisy when he declares that the U.S. must shoulder the burden of "bearing modernism to those who want it but who rail against it at the same time." If you watch "the stridently anti-American satellite channel Al-Jazeera," he continues, "you'll behold a parody of American ways and techniques unfolding on the television screen." One successful practitioner of those techniques is Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, of Doha, Qatar, who is one of Sunni Islam's most influential clerics.
While condemning "the arrogance of the United States" and our war against Iraq, he never acknowledges the TV techniques that he borrowed from American televangelists, nor does he mention the fact that his three children graduated from U.S. universities. Ajami opines that al-Qaradawi "embodies anti-Americanism as the flip side of Americanization." They just can't help themselves; they hate us, but they want to be like us -- a contradiction that helps to explain "the frenzy with which radical Islamists battle against deportation orders from U.S. soil."
Ajami also tells the story of Egyptian playwright Ali Salem,"a free spirit at odds with the intellectual class in his country," who was interviewed by New Yorker magazine after Sept. 11. "People say that Americans are arrogant, but it's not true," Salem told the magazine. "Americans enjoy life, they are proud of their lives and they are boastful of their wonderful inventions..." On the other hand, he continued, "It's very difficult to understand the machinery of hatred..." He described the America haters as "people who are envious. To them, life is an unbearable burden," and our modern accomplishments represent intolerable threats to their traditional and hopelessly outdated way of life.
"The United States need not worry about hearts and minds in foreign lands," Prof. Ajami concludes. "If Muslims truly believe that their long winter of decline is the fault of the United States, no campaign of public diplomacy shall deliver them from that incoherence." Well, I still worry about foreign hearts and minds, but after reading Ajami's very coherent article, I recognize that U.S. public diplomacy faces a lengthy uphill battle, especially in the Muslim world.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.