'Against Us': 7 Years Later U.S. Image Still Toxic

ABC's Jim Sciutto looks at Muslim world's view of the U.S. 7 years after 9/11.

September 9, 2008, 7:02 AM

Sept. 11, 2008 — -- If you want to understand the crisis of confidence the next U.S. president will face in the Muslim World, drop into any home from the bustling cities to the quiet villages and you'll hear that "extraordinary rendition," Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Iraq War (even post-surge) as widely accepted proof of America's continuing, calculated assault on Islam.

Still, I've seen some of the most disturbing evidence of America's toxic image among Muslims not in Damascus, Baghdad or Tehran but at home in Notting Hill in West London.

Beginning in July 2005, I learned that my neighbors are terrorists. After attempting to blow themselves up on the London subway, three young British Muslims were captured in an apartment just down the street from me (and around the corner from the Travel Book Shop where Hugh Grant's character worked in the movie "Notting Hill").

Two years later, after several men, all doctors, tried to detonate car bombs outside two London nightclubs, I learned some of them had addresses near mine as well. The liquid bomb plotters -- the ones responsible for the tiny bottles we have to take on airplanes to this day -- were from Waltham Forest, a dozen subway stops away.

What inspires young British-born Muslims to kill their fellow citizens today is the same perverse but deep-seated anger that drove the 19 hijackers seven years ago: a belief in a grand Western conspiracy against Islam, led by America and bent on punishing Muslims. The trouble is that today that conviction is stronger and more widespread. We still call it "extremism" but the thinking is very much mainstream.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, positive views of America among Muslims -- views that were already anemic -- have grown thinner.

Between 2002 and 2007, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that America's favorability rating declined in 26 of 33 countries surveyed. Eight of the nine countries in which less than 30 percent of people rated the United States positively were predominantly Muslim: Turkey, Pakistan, Palestine, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia. In more than 30 years as a pollster, Pew's Andrew Kohut said he has found no frame of reference for the decline.

"We don't have any experience with this. We never got the breadth of discontent with America as we have now," he said. "In other countries, it's disappointment, resentment, envy. Among Muslims, it ranges from strong dislike to hatred."

Today, that resentment extends to a remarkable variety of people -- many of whom we'd expect to be our allies.

In Egypt, it's Gameela Ismail, the wife of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour. The Bush administration encouraged her husband to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections -- Egypt's first in decades -- but has barely protested since Mubarak sent him to jail soon after. For three years, she's rallied for his release, with no help, she said, from American officials.

"After the situation with Ayman, the impression with everyone here is that they're playing," she said. "They're both playing. And they have their own calculations, very old calculations, and it's not going to change."

In Iraq, it's the trauma surgeon at one of Baghdad's busiest hospitals. He welcomed the U.S. military with real hope. But after five years of piecing together the war's victims, he blames the United States for failing to deliver the democratic paradise it promised him. At times, he's even suspected that the United States planned the violence to justify a long-term military presence. The success of the surge has tempered those suspicions. But to him, the deaths of more than 150,000 Iraqis (as estimated by the World Health Organization through 2006) has been too high a price for his country to pay.

"All of us in Iraq have heard many promises, but none of them have been fulfilled. I think the Americans can win the war, but they don't want to win," he said. "They don't have the real intention to win the war."

In Iran, it's the pro-democracy student leader Babak Zamanian, who risks his life fighting for American-style freedom in Iran but wants no American help. In fact, he said the United States is hurting his cause by threatening war, which he believes strengthens Iran's hard-liners.

"It's just not clear what the U.S. is doing in the world, and that's a huge problem," he said. "Speaking about diplomacy one day and war the next makes the situation in Iran very critical."

In Afghanistan, it's a young girl named Homa who's just beginning college in Kabul. Afghanistan is unique in the Muslim world in that large majorities believe the United States is helping to change their lives for the better.

"When Taliban was in our country, we couldn't do anything," Homa told me when I first met her in 2006. "Now we can do whatever we want."

The trouble is, seven years after the invasion, the United States is failing to meet her expectations. She's able to go to school, unlike under the Taliban when girls were banned from classrooms. But years after the invasion, her school was still a collection of simple, canvas tents. She and her family are safe from beatings by the Taliban for violating Islamic law, but they face a growing threat of terrorist violence.

"The situation is too bad in Afghanistan now," she told me on a return visit last month. "There's more people killed."

Perhaps most troubling is the growing belief around the region that the United States obstructs rather than promotes progress.

For Muslims, the gap between what we preach and what we do has always been wide, but today it is almost unbridgeable. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and our continuing relationships with Middle Eastern dictatorships all matter. Muslim friends laugh when we call Saudi Arabia and Egypt "moderate" regimes.

Many dissidents now see their cause as stronger without America than with it.

"Without you getting involved," an Egyptian pro-democracy blogger told me, "we'd be fighting just [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, not Mubarak and America."

This sense of being under assault has helped solidify a form of Middle Eastern nationalism that transcends borders, even religion.

I can easily find Christians in Lebanon who revere Hezbollah as devoutly as Shiite Muslims do; they see it as resistance against American imperialism. Hating America has become a modern-day youth movement. In this sense, al Qaeda may be losing the military campaign, but it has won a considerable ideological victory.

"Al Qaeda's ideological claims now have credibility, that the West is waging war against Islam," said Fawaz Gerges, a long-time Middle East analyst. "There is a crusading spirit in the West. It helps shape the Muslim view that the U.S. is trying to control their lives. The U.S. is convinced al Qaeda is an evil-doer. Al Qaeda has convinced Muslims that the U.S. is an evil-doer too."

As Americans, we can react self-righteously. I've lost my cool in dozens of cafe debates with Muslim friends.

Nevertheless, looking far past 9/11 and into the next presidency, there are reasons for hope. Polling consistently shows Muslims' priorities mirror ours: family, economic opportunity and a political system they can participate in. It's just that today they see America as standing in the way of these values, rather than promoting them.

Some of the solutions are straightforward. Shutting Guantanamo Bay and denouncing torture would remove, albeit belatedly, two of the most glaring examples of American hypocrisy.

In Egypt, it means pushing the government to allow a viable opposition, starting with releasing dissidents such as Ayman Nour. More often, the solutions are long-term and complicated.

In Afghanistan, it means accelerating nation-building. No Afghans I know imagined their country would be so unstable seven years after the invasion. In Iran, it means showing Iranian dissidents a way forward short of war.

"Many Muslims are still deeply enamored of America the idea," said Gerges.

For an increasing number of Muslims, America the reality, though, is a disappointment and a threat.

ABC News senior foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto's book, "Against Us," a look into the Arab Muslim view of the United States in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, will be released in bookstores today.

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