What explains Muslim anti-Americanism? Those on the right say it’s our freedoms. Those on the left say it’s our resort to military force. The debate just looks like an artifact of American political debates.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that Muslim antiAmericanism is really just … an artifact of local political debates. That’s the conclusion, at any rate, of a recent study for Cambridge University Press by Lisa Blaydes of Stanford and Drew A. Linzer of Emory University:
Blaydes and Linzer conclude that the main explanation for high levels of anti-American opinion in a given country depends, not as previously thought on Muslim perceptions of what America is culturally or what it does politically, but on the degree of competition between the political elites within that country itself….
Analysis of a huge amount of survey data collected from 13,000 Muslims in 21 countries showed that those countries where people expressed the most anti-American views were also those where two powerful political elites (one Islamist and one secular) were competing fiercely with each other for supporters. In countries where this did not apply, the amount of anti-Americanism expressed was significantly lower. … Blaydes comments:
"When the struggle for political control between two factions escalates, they both tend to ramp up anti-American appeals to boost their own mass support with the result that political debate in certain countries is more or less saturated with anti-American messages. This means that larger numbers of Muslims hear, consider, and are led to adopt anti-American attitudes.
"Conversely we found that in Islamic countries where the battle for local supremacy has already been won by those who are more religious, neither side of the political divide had strong incentives to invoke grievances against the US to recruit supporters and hence the level of anti-Americanism among citizens was lower."
Well, yeah; Tip O’Neill, call your office. The authors also do a good job of debunking the notion that explaining ourselves better will solve the problem of virulent antiAmericanism. But they seem a little unsure about what will work:
"A core assumption made by those who advocate increasing investment in public diplomacy campaigns is that anti-Americanism stems from poor 'strategic communication' on the part of the US. The results of our study suggest, instead, that Muslim publics are highly responsive to messages from their own domestic elites and the media that report what they say about America. Any American-led effort to change the story in the most anti-American countries will have to find a way to counter the effects on Muslim minds of local politicians spouting anti-US rhetoric in order to bolster their own positions and win supporters."
So here’s my almost-serious solution: Spread a new meme, derived from Godwin’s Law: “Any politician in a Muslim country who tries to justify his re-election by attacking American policy has already lost the debate.”
If nothing else, we’ll give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad something new to worry about.