Sinking in the Polls
The video reappearance of Osama bin Laden is a reminder that extremists with murderous methods continue to threaten innocent people worldwide. His emergence after three years of hiding also provides an opportunity to take stock of how differently the world now views the terrorist leader -- and that view is turning darker than bin Laden's newly dyed beard.
People in America and many other Western nations have expressed strong disapproval of bin Laden and al-Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks. What's new is the dramatic decline in his standing in majority-Muslim countries. Polls in the two nations that have suffered some of the worst of al-Qaeda's violence -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- show that more than 90 percent of those populations have unfavorable views of al-Qaeda and of bin Laden himself.
Pollsters say that it is difficult to find 90 percent agreement that apple pie is American -- yet polling in Turkey two years ago found that 90 percent of citizens believe the al-Qaeda bombings in London, Istanbul, Madrid and Egypt were unjust and unfair; 86 percent thought that there was no excuse for condoning the Sept. 11 attacks; and 75 percent said bin Laden does not represent Muslims.
Support for terrorist tactics has fallen in seven of the eight predominantly Muslim countries polled as part of the Pew Global Attitudes Project since 2002; in most cases, those declines have been dramatic. Five years ago in Lebanon, 74 percent of the population thought suicide bombing could sometimes be justified. Today it's 34 percent -- still too high, but a stark reversal. Similar declines in support have occurred in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Jordan.
Perhaps most significant, Muslim populations are increasingly rejecting bin Laden's attempts to pervert their faith. WorldPublicOpinion.org found in April that large majorities in Egypt (88 percent), Indonesia (65 percent) and Morocco (66 percent) agree: "Groups that use violence against civilians, such as Al Qaida, are violating the principles of Islam. Islam opposes the use of such violence." These shifts in attitude are beginning to show up in actions. Sunni leaders in Iraq's Anbar province are working with coalition forces against al-Qaeda because, as one local leader said to journalists, all the terrorists bring is chaos -- "killing people, stealing goats, everything, you name it." After recent terrorist attacks in Algeria, protesters shouted: "Terrorists are not Muslims" and "no to terrorism; don't touch my Algeria."
While it is good that many Muslims are recognizing that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda are a common threat, many polls show that much remains to be done to improve foreign perceptions of the United States. The drop in support for violent extremists presents an opportunity to expand our efforts to nurture common interests with people overseas and work with them to counter al-Qaeda's attempts to radicalize young people.
Al-Qaeda's growing Internet propaganda activities glorify violence and seek to exploit local grievances, from political oppression to a lack of economic opportunities. In contrast, America's public diplomacy programs are engaging young people constructively, through English-language teaching, educational exchanges, music and sports diplomacy.
This summer, we partnered with local governments in predominantly Muslim countries to host programs to teach young people English and leadership and citizenship skills. It was the first time many of these youths had met an American. Evaluations show they left with much more positive views of our country.
This year, we will teach English to thousands of young people in more than 40 majority-Muslim countries. I met with a group in Morocco, in the same neighborhood that produced the Casablanca suicide bombers of 2003. When I asked one young man what difference learning English had made in his life, he told me: "I have a job, and none of my friends do." That young man also has hope -- a reason to live rather than to kill himself and others in a suicide bombing.
Thanks to strong bipartisan support from Congress, we are expanding our education and exchange programs as well as bringing "key influencers" such as Muslim journalists and clerics here to experience America for themselves.
These kinds of programs are invaluable in challenging stereotypes and countering the misinformation that radical extremists put out to drive a wedge between our cultures and countries.
Osama bin Laden's recent tape was a reminder that al-Qaeda offers only destruction and death. Al-Qaeda terrorists murder those who don't agree with them -- including Muslims. Their attacks on mosques, shrines and even wedding celebrations confirm that they don't care about innocent Muslims. As one woman in Algeria put it, "They are criminals who want to sabotage the country." That's a message bin Laden's words don't convey, but his actions do. Six years after Sept. 11, good and decent people of many faiths and cultures are increasingly rejecting his brutal methods.
The writer is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.