Ahead of President Obama’s speech tomorrow in Cairo, views of the United States in the Muslim world can best be described as better, but far from good. And views the other way – Americans’ attitudes about Islam – have their troubles, too.
There’s good Muslim-nation data available from Gallup, which has recent approval ratings of “the leadership of the United States” in 10 such countries and the Palestinian territories. And here at home, a recent poll of our own found broad support among Americans for U.S. outreach to the Muslim world – but also substantial suspicion of Islam and unfamiliarity with the world’s second-largest religion.
Gallup’s results, collected in February and March, find approval of U.S. leadership higher than it’s been recently in eight of these countries, but still relatively low – less than a majority in all but one. Disapproval, meantime, has dropped sharply in a few places; in Egypt, for instance, it’s down from 74 percent last year to 52 percent now. Still high, but a lot lower.
Approval ranges from a low of 7 percent in the Palestinian territories to a high of 56 percent in Mauritania. In Egypt, just 25 percent approve of U.S. leadership, but that is up 19 points in the past year. The largest increases have been in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Gallup World Poll: “Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership of the United States?”
Approve of US Leadership 2009 Pvs.* ChangeMauritania 56% 44% +12 Algeria 47 25 +22 Tunisia 37 14 +23 Kuwait 33 20 +13 Saudi Arabia 29 12 +17 Egypt 25 6 +19 Qatar 22 8 +14 Lebanon 22 25 -3Syria 15 4 +11 Yemen 14 11 +3 Palestinian territories 7 13 -6 *All from 2008 except Kuwait 2006, Qatar 1/09, Yemen 2007
In some of these countries disapproval is down much more sharply than approval is up, with more people undecided – suggesting that some citizens are reserving judgment until they see more from the new U.S. administration. Disapproval is down most sharply in Tunisia, from 86 to 49 percent; in Saudi Arabia, from 81 to 52 percent; and in Syria, from 91 to 71 percent.
Disapprove of US Leadership 2009 2008 Change Tunisia 49 86 -37Saudi Arabia 52 81 -29Egypt 52 74 -22Syria 71 91 -20Lebanon 60 70 -10Yemen 72 85 -13
In Tunisia last year fewer than 1 percent had no opinion, vs. 15 percent now. In Saudi Arabia “don’t know” went from 6 percent to 19 percent; in Syria from 5 percent to 14 percent; in Lebanon from 5 percent to 18 percent. In Egypt “no opinion” of U.S. leadership has gone from 13 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in ’08 and 25 percent now. See Gallup’s full analysis here.
Just looking at Egypt, Gallup’s 2008 poll – the one a year ago – tested seven possible actions the United States could take to improve its image significantly there. Sixty-four percent said withdrawing from Iraq would help; 60 percent, removing military bases from Saudi Arabia; 57 percent, more technology and business trade; 57 percent, more aid for poverty; 55 percent, promotion of democracy; 55 percent, promotion of economic development; and 50 percent, closing GITMO. Details here.
OTHER WAY – Looking the other way, in an ABC/Post poll this spring eight in 10 Americans said it’s important for Obama to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, and 65 percent thought he’d do “the right amount” – rather than either going too far (22 percent) or not far enough (9 percent) – to try to accomplish that goal.
At the same time, Americans by 48-41 percent expressed an unfavorable opinion of Islam overall, its highest unfavorable rating in ABC/Post polls since 2001. And just under three in 10 expressed the belief that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims – down slightly from its peak, but double what it was in early 2002.
Unfamiliarity informs such views: Fifty-five percent of Americans say they lack a good, basic understanding of Islam, and about as many, 53 percent, don’t personally know a Muslim. People who profess a basic understanding of the religion – or who know a Muslim – see it much more positively.