U.S. hopes to win Muslims’ hearts

But aid effort not likely to alter political views in Islamic states

As U.S. troops deliver critical relief supplies to the stunned, grieving survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami, they are also attempting to bring something else to the devastated region: an image of a kinder, gentler United States.

The Bush administration is turning its massive aid effort into a crucial weapon in a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims in southern Asia and in much of the rest of the Muslim world, nudging their sentiments in America’s favor.

“I hope that as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday before embarking on a helicopter tour of the ravaged island of Sumatra in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and the nation worst hit by the tsunami.

The scenes of U.S. Marines aiding injured victims and Navy pilots handing out drinking water to the destitute in southern Asia portray the United States at its most benevolent. Still, the effort is unlikely to be enough to turn around negative Muslim feelings toward the United States in much of the rest of the world.

“What America is doing after the tsunami is widely recognized as positive in the region. In India, in Pakistan, in Indonesia people admire it,” said Husain Haqqani, an expert on south Asia and terrorism at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. However, he warned, “gratitude and political views do not always coincide.”

Providing humanitarian aid to the Indian Ocean nations does not address the main point of contention many Muslims have with the United States: Washington’s seemingly one-sided support of Israel and the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington. Opinion surveys conducted by Zogby’s polling organization, Zogby International, suggest overwhelming anti-American sentiment, even among such Muslim countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco whose governments are considered friendly by Washington.

“It’s not because we’re not generous enough, it’s because our generosity of spirit has not applied to the issue that’s most problematic for them. It’s not responsive to why people in the Arab world are furious with America,” Zogby said. “The region has its own tsunami.”

An editorial in the Wednesday issue of the Daily Star, Lebanon’s English- language newspaper, carried the headline “American trust remains in short supply throughout the region.” It offered scathing criticism of the U.S. war in Iraq and in particular its approach to peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The pattern of American interaction with this region,” the editorial declared, “continues to be a troubling one, as ringing promises and lofty goals contrast sharply with military intervention and purely rhetorical support for the rule of law and good governance.”

The editorial made no mention of the U.S. aid effort in southern Asia.

The English-language Web site for Al-Jazeera (english.aljazeera. net/HomePage) news channel referred to the U.S. aid only in passing, listing Washington as one of the contributors to the international relief drive. Al- Jazeera, whose Arabic-language satellite broadcasts have been criticized as helping to stoke anti-American attitudes in the Middle East, plans to launch a broadcasting service in southern Asia later this year, based in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Haqqani said some Arabic-language papers had been publishing reports that the earthquake that caused the tsunami was a result of a nuclear test conducted underwater by the United States. Others, he said, described the U.S. aid effort as a public relations stunt.

“America-haters in the Muslim world don’t spare America anything,” he said, adding that the United States would find it difficult to appease the Muslim community “as long as there are groups that are bent on demonizing the

“When somebody has a psychosis that somebody hates you, you can’t change that by one gesture — it takes time,” Haqqani said. “But in the long run, all gestures of kindness and friendships deprive (America’s foes) of their core argument, which is that the U.S. hates Muslims.”

American efforts have more chance of success in Indonesia and other countries affected by the tsunami, said Douglas Raybeck, a professor of anthropology at Hamilton College in upstate New York who has lived in and researched communities in Southeast Asia.

A 2003 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed 83 percent of Indonesians viewed the United States unfavorably, up from 60 percent a year earlier. But Raybeck said this sentiment, promoted by some Islamic clerics in Indonesia, is not as deeply rooted as anti-American feelings in the Arab world.

“The people who are most unhappy with the U.S., the truly conservative Muslims, are still a minority in Indonesia,” he said. Most Indonesian Muslims practice moderate forms of Sunni and Shiite Islam and traditionally tend toward religious tolerance.

Other countries in the region share that view. In Malaysia last spring, moderate politicians swept to power in landslide victories against the fundamentalist opposition in parliamentary and state elections.

The Bush administration hopes its relief effort will help patch its strained ties with Jakarta in order to enlist its help in the war against international terrorism, which would benefit both countries. Indonesia is home to a secretive terrorist group known as Jemaah Islamiyah, which operates across Southeast Asia. Jemaah Islamiyah has links to al Qaeda and has claimed responsibility for several recent bombings, including one in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people.

“The al Qaeda types will want their spin — they’ll want us to be seen as self-interested, using this as a photo-op,” Raybeck said. “But in all honesty, most of this effort is toward directing aid, so that’s a hard one to make stick. It’s going to take time for the U.S. to recapture our credibility, but this will help.”

More San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the Tsunami aftermath

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Jan. 6, 2005
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday January 6, 2005.
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