It's not just foreign policy that makes Americans unpopular in the Muslim world

The United States doesn't get a lot of love from the Muslim world. Only eight percent of Pakistanis, for instance, view the U.S. as a partner, according to a Pew opinion poll conducted in June. Fully 74 percent consider the U.S. an enemy -- $30 billion in direct aid pledged since 1948 notwithstanding. Equally discouraging is the recent outpouring of anti-American sentiment in Yemen, where President Barack Obama promised more than $175 million in non-military development and humanitarian aid for this year alone.

It's unfortunate, but there's an easy explanation, right? American values, perceived as antithetical to Islam, coupled with U.S. foreign policy -- think drones and American support for Israel -- have made the U.S. so unpopular in the Muslim world that no amount of aid can rehabilitate its image.

Not so fast. Political scientists Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer have a provocative article in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review that challenges the notion that "individuals form their opinions about the United States primarily as a direct reaction to what the United States is or does."

Obviously, grievances of this type are not irrelevant, but Blaydes and Linzer argue that anti-American sentiment is primarily concocted by political elites who try to ideologically "outbid" each other in their quest for votes. They call it "instrumental" anti-Americanism, and their model predicts when it's most likely to occur.

We trace the source of Muslim ant-Americanism to the intensity of domestic political competition between a country's Islamist and secular-national factions...Where the struggle for political control between these two groups escalates, elites of both types have incentives to ramp up anti-American appeals to boost mass support. 

This theory helps to explain why anti-American attitudes among Muslims are remarkably stable over time. (You would expect them to shift with major events like the Iraq war if they were formed in response to policy decisions.) It also explains why the most devout Muslim countries -- like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states -- have more favorable attitudes toward the U.S. than countries that are split between religious and secular constituencies.

Anti-Americanism is much more widespread in countries with higher perceived levels of struggle between secular and Islamist elites, as well as in countries with lower overall levels of religiosity among the Muslim population. 

In Turkey, for example, only 36 percent of Muslims consider themselves highly religious, but fully 90 percent reported unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S. In Senegal, by contrast, 83 percent of Muslims consider themselves highly religious, but only 30 percent had negative feelings about the U.S. In Morocco, which splits the difference between Turkey and Senegal on religiosity, 79 percent of respondents reported unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S.

So if you think Islam goes hand in hand with anti-Americanism, think again. And considering that in Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan -- all among the top ten recipients of U.S. aid -- at least 75 percent of respondents felt negatively about the United States, policy doesn't fully explain anti-Americanism, either.

AFP/Getty Images


A one-man Dream Act

Born with tumors that distorted one side of his face and abandoned by his parents at an orphanage when he was 15, Sopuruchi Chukwueke was brought from Nigeria to the United States by a missionary nun 11 years ago, has graduated from high school and college, and has been accepted to the University of Toledo's medical school. However, he can't start classes because the visa he used to travel to the U.S. ran out ten years ago. As Bloomberg reports, his hopes now rest on an act of Congress

He can’t start classes this month, though, because the visa that enabled him to travel to Michigan for treatment expired 10 years ago, and he has been in the U.S. illegally since then. The only hope Chukwueke has of achieving his goal is enactment of legislation sponsored by U.S. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, that applies solely to him and would give him permanent U.S. residency.

This is tried more than you might think: 

A long-shot option for obtaining legal status is a private- relief bill, which applies to just one person and is frequently related to an immigration issue. While about 100 such bills are introduced in each two-year congressional session, few are enacted: So far in the current session of Congress, which started Jan. 1, 2011, none of the 82 that have been introduced has reached the White House. In 2009 and 2010, only two became law. In 2007 and 2008, none succeeded.

Chukwueke's story also highlights the limits of the immigration reform which came into effect in the United States last week, which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 to remain on visas which must be renewed every two years. His medical school will only allow him to attend classes if he attains permanent residency status.

Meanwhile, "Dream Act-lite" is running into problems of its own as the governors of Arizona and Nebraska say they will still refuse to give driver's licenses or other state benefits to people enrolled in the program.