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Why the US image declined in the Muslim World?

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Seven years after 9/11, hostility towards the US remains at shocking levels in the Muslim world where the US has followed a double standard policy. Its relationship with the Muslim nations has been based on a kind of hegemony which had taken shape in the Cold War era and continued in the post-Cold War period.

During the Cold War era the US followed the Truman doctrine of containment to limit and prevent Soviet expansionism. The US endeavored to develop its presence in different parts of the world including Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East, to contain the Soviet expansion.

The strategically located Arab nations of the Middle East were important to the United States for their large oil and gas reserves while the non-Arabs countries of the region such as Iran and Turkey were also important for the US due to their strategic position in helping the United States to block the Soviet influence.

During the Soviet invasion/occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) the US armed and trained the so-called Mujahideen groups to fight the communist ‘infidels’. Tellingly, some of the groups such as Osama Bin Laden that were fighting against the Soviet invaders originally received their training from the CIA during that period.

The so-called Mujahideen received approximately $3.5 billion in arms and other aid from the CIA, regardless of their political orientation or Islamist zeal. In this way, the most radical Islamic group - Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's party -- received two thirds of American aid over two years. Yet for a long time, it did not seem to worry the CIA that Hekmatyar's party was openly not only anti-Soviet but also anti-American, and that it was responsible for massacres, torture and just about every conceivable human rights abuse, quite apart from the fact that Hekmatyar was also trafficking in heroin on the side. If there is such a thing as the classic fundamentalist leader, straight out of Western stories, then it is Hekmatyar.

Despite this Washington had no reservations, but only arms and money to offer. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Of all the Afghan Mujahideen groups, his was the best organized and militarily most powerful -- the natural partner for an anti-Soviet campaign. It was only some time after the USSR had withdrawn from Afghanistan, in fact only when the USA and the Soviet Union cooperated closely in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1990-1 that the USA distanced itself from Hekmatyar's party. On February 19, 2003 the United States State Department and the United States Treasury Department jointly designated Hekmatyar a "global terrorist". (1)

At the end of the 1980s, when the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan amid the crack-up of the Soviet Union, the volunteer holy warriors did not go home to open bakeries or flower shops. Determined to destroy their own governments and Western-corrupted societies, as they saw them, they decided to attack and destabilize these institutions. There were estimated 5,000 trained Saudis, 3,000 Yemenis, 2,800 Algerians, 2,000 Egyptians and perhaps 2,000 Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Iranians and others. This gives credence to the argument that much of today's “Islamic fundamentalist” activity is the work of groups funded for years not by Iran but by the United States, which kept a number of Islamic groups going throughout the Cold War era. (2)

To sum up, during the Cold War era, the US national interests in the Middle East seemed to require excluding Soviet power, preserving secure access to the region’s oil and keeping strategic trade routes open. For these purposes, the United States supported autocratic, undemocratic and repressive but pro-Western Arab and non-Arab ruling elites. For example, in 1953, the US toppled the democratically elected Iranian government of Prime Minister Dr. Musaddiq and reinstalled the deposed King Muhammad Reza Shah; During 1980s, the US supported the autocratic and undemocratic regimes of President General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan and President General Jaafar Nimeiry in the Sudan, both of them exploited Islam to maintain their grip over power.

Not surprisingly, the demise of the Cold War involving the US and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s left military strategists in the West searching for a new enemy. To borrow Richard Conder, author of the Munchurian Candidate: "Now that the communists have been put to sleep, we are going to have to invent another terrible threat." Former US Secretary of Defense, McNamara, in his 1989 testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, stated that defense spending could safely be cut in half over five years. For the Pentagon it was a simple choice: either find new enemies or cut defense spending. Topping the list of potential bogeymen were the Yellow Peril, the alleged threat to US economic security emanating from the East Asia, and the so-called Green Peril (green representing Islam). The Pentagon selected "Islamic fundamentalism" and "rogue states" as the new bogeymen. (3)

Jochen Hippler corroborates this view when he says: “The West no longer has the Soviet Union or communism to serve as enemies justifying expensive and extensive military apparatuses. It was in the mid-1980s at the very latest that the search began for new enemies to justify arms budgets and offensive military policies, at first as part of the communist threat and then in its place. First the 'War on Drugs', the somewhat absurd and naturally failed attempt to solve New York's drug problem by naval exercise off the coast of South America and military operations in Bolivia, then 'Terrorism', a term applied to real terrorists as well as to various unpleasant freedom movements in the Third World which (of course) demanded military responses, were two such attempts during the 1980s.” (4)

One could multiply examples to prove the point but I believe it is not necessary. It will suffice to say that in the absence of the Soviet Union the West, particularly the United States, needed to introduce a new enemy to rationalize its military policies and more importantly as B. Tibi has argued to “ensure the continuity of its political and military unity and hegemony.” (5)

Consequently, demonizing of Islam began in the post-Cold War period with many ‘experts’ and political leaders trying to define Islam as a new threat or an 'enemy' of the West. M. Rodinson, the author of “The Western image and Western studies of Islam”, for example, has pointed out that “the Muslims were a threat to Western Christendom long before they became a problem.” (6) In a 1990 address Bush Senior Vice President, Dan Quayle, listed Islam with Nazism and Communism as the challenges the Western civilization must undertake to meet collectively. (7)  In a similar tone in February 1995 the former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General, W. Claes, warned that Islamic fundamentalism is as much a threat to the Western alliance as communism once was. (8)

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have presented an “opportunity” for Washington to attempt to constrain the emerging complexity of the emerging international system as a whole by shifting international focus to the relatively narrow, but no less significant, issue-area of 'anti-terrorism'.  Since then, the US has made consistent and persuasive, indeed unremitting, attempts to reduce many other items on the international political and economic agenda to an ‘anti-terrorist’ essence.  (9)

With regards to US relations with the Islamic World, the 9/11 attacks have created a new wave of anti-Islam movement in the USA and even other Western countries. At the beginning President Bush tried to identify (the US war on terror) a crusade however, it was quickly reacted by the Muslim world and some non-Muslim nations as well. But as it has been stated the 'war on terror' was not limited to Afghanistan and Bin Laden's group (Al Qaeda) it would be continued against Muslim and non-Islamic countries that the America considered to be supporter of terrorism (You are with us or with enemy). Based on this statement Bush characterized Iraq, Iran and North Korea ‘axis of evil’.(10)

The US ‘war against terror’ since 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as incarceration and torture of hundreds of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay US military prison in Cuba, not only created a negative feeling toward the US but a new perception of American intentions. There now seems to be a perception that the US has entered into a war against Islam itself.

Since 9/11, foreign public opinion polls conducted by the State Department and private firms and organizations have shown that negative attitudes toward the United States have generally grown worse in many countries around the world, particularly in the Muslim world.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)

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Comment from Ratings:   I would have rat... by rosewelsh on Saturday, Sep 13, 2008 at 10:24:45 AM
Mr. Ghazali's article is very insightful, info... by eileen kuch on Saturday, Sep 13, 2008 at 5:07:10 PM
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It has earned contempt in spades.  It has all... by John Hanks on Saturday, Sep 13, 2008 at 5:40:21 PM
It is this type of article that reminds me how lit... by sometimes blinded on Saturday, Sep 13, 2008 at 5:48:31 PM
“They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of re... by kwalsh on Sunday, Sep 14, 2008 at 8:03:05 PM