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World: Survey Challenges Assumption Of Widespread Anti-Western Views In Islamic World

A survey published this week shows that many young people in the Muslim world are critical of U.S. and British policies, but that they still list the two as among their most admired countries. Observers say this challenges the assumption common in the West that hatred of America and the West has intensified in the Islamic world since 11 September.

Prague, 12 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The survey of the attitudes of young Muslims was originally meant to be an in-house poll for the British Council, the main cultural arm of Britain's Foreign Office.

The British Council questioned 4,700 young people in nine countries with substantial Muslim populations: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

But the results were so interesting that the council decided to make them public, according to Patrick Spaven, who wrote the report. Spaven said many respondents criticized the U.S. for interfering too much in the affairs of other countries; the current Afghan campaign and the Gulf War of 1991 were frequently cited. But others criticized the U.S. for not interfering enough in the Middle East. "Either way, the political stance of America was disapproved of strongly by the majority of people who we covered in the survey, either in the focus groups or in the questionnaire. And Britain came in for disapproval for its support for America. Britain was not seen to be so much a protagonist, but it was criticized strongly for being, as it were, the 'lackey' of America, for not thinking on its own feet. And [Britain] was compared unfavorably in that respect with other continental European countries, which were seen to be more independent and thinking for themselves," Spaven said.

No surprises there, then.

What is surprising is that, although critical of the foreign policies of the U.S. and Britain, a majority of respondents still listed them as being among their favorite countries.

The U.S. topped the list, and was more than twice as popular as the No. 2 choice, Japan. Britain came in fourth behind Egypt, which ranked high because of the great enthusiasm for the country in the Palestinian Authority and in Saudi Arabia.

Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem proved the exception, putting Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon at the top of their lists of favorite countries. But even this group still put the U.S. and Britain in their top six.

In Britain's case, respondents said they admired the country's education system, its economy, heritage, monarchy, and stable political system, and the fact that it has a successful multicultural society. For the U.S., its economy and technological advancements were rated most attractive.

Spaven said the West is particularly appealing to young people because of higher living standards and the advanced state of the economies. These realities appear to outweigh any criticisms they have of U.S. and British policies. "They do seem to be very much attracted by advanced technology, almost an 'awe factor.' And yes, many of them, I'm sure -- there's absolutely no doubt -- aspire to have a share in that in one way or another, not necessarily permanently but to go to one of these [countries] for a short time perhaps, to study, to have a job, and experience it and benefit from it. So [they're] very much pulled in two directions, but not apparently in great conflict. They seem to be able to reconcile the two things quite comfortably in their heads and in their world outlook," Spaven said.

The British Council acknowledges that a different sample group could have produced very different results. The council focused on young people between the ages of 15 and 25, mostly in urban areas and many with higher education. A Gallup poll from January covered a wider cross section of the populations and showed a much lower "favorable" rating for either the U.S. or the U.K.

Still, James Morris said the poll challenges the myth that hatred of the U.S. and the U.K. has intensified in the Islamic world since the 11 September terrorist attacks and the start of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Morris, a professor at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at Britain's University of Exeter, said it demonstrates how ordinary people often do not share their government's anti-Western views. And as for America's Middle East policy, which many in the Islamic world say has a clear pro-Israeli bias, he said people in the Islamic world realize this policy has many critics at home, too.

Morris noted another important factor shaping people's opinions of the West, that the U.S. and the U.K. have large numbers of refugees, immigrants, and students from all over the Islamic world. "Obviously, the people who go there and stay like it for certain reasons, and that is very well known. And especially given the modern media, telephone, and Internet connections, people can very easily stay in touch with their relatives and neighbors who have gone off to live in the U.S. or U.K., or at least to study there," Morris said.

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is leader of Britain's self-styled Muslim Parliament, set up 10 years ago as a political platform for Britain's Muslims. He said the young people questioned in the survey demonstrated a "mature" outlook. "I think this is a very mature response we see in this survey because they were able to make a distinction between the country and the politicians, the policymakers, which are now in command of the destiny of these two countries," Siddiqui said.

Siddiqui said the survey shows people in the Islamic world realize the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is not anti-Muslim.

That might sound comforting to politicians in Washington and London who have gone to great lengths to explain just that. But Siddiqui's explanation for this is not heartening. He said it's because the respondents believe the war has a hidden agenda: to put a more compliant government in place in Kabul in order to further American oil-and-gas interests in the region.

"When this unfortunate event took place,11 September, [the U.S. and the U.K.] used it as a cover to go out and control the markets and resources for the benefit of the corporate sector. So, [respondents] make a distinction between Britain and America and the way big business is dominating the political agenda. I think it is a very mature response, and this is how one can explain [it]," Siddiqui said.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to gauge how accurate this interpretation is. But whatever the explanation for the views expressed in the survey, the British Council says it shows one thing clearly: people in the West should resist stereotyping the Islamic world and lumping people from a huge geographical area into one single mass.

British Council Chairwoman Helena Kennedy told a BBC radio Web chat that the survey's responses were very nuanced, saying, "People have very complex views, combining the negative and the positive."