Thursday, January 5, 2012

Post #146 - Getting to Know You

(This post and the next will deal with Iranian attitudes.)

We need to know a great deal more about the Iranian people themselves – those people whose freedom we profess to cherish. Ill-fitting or simplistic stereotypes -- a land of crazed Islamic radicals, or a “captive nation” awaiting liberators from abroad – do not suffice. On a large sign outside a rural high school in central Iran (where an American school might have had “Home of the Tigers,” or “Welcome Back Alums”), I saw these words -- in English:

      In the Name of Allah
      Welcome to the Land of the Freeborn,
      Poets, Devouts, Philosophers and Heroes
      Shahid Salim Passargard High School

How much do we really know about the man and woman on the street in Iran, what makes them tick and what is going on inside their heads?

Search for Common Ground commissioned a poll released in January 2007 that looked at opinion in the United States and Iran. It was done in collaboration with WorldPublicOpinion, a project of the Program for International Policy Attitudes of the University of Maryland, which conducts surveys of public views on key international issues around the globe. The results were as intriguing for what they showed about what Americans think, as for the data regarding Iranian opinion. Excerpts from results (with my bracketed notes) follow:

Clash of Civilizations: Although Iranians show substantial concern about the conflict between Islamic and Western cultures, a majority rejects the idea that it is inevitable…However, a substantially larger minority of Americans believe that conflict is inevitable.

{If two ships approach one another, only one, acting alone, can ensure that they are on a collision course; to avoid catastrophe, we must both believe that we can, by force of will, take steps to change the plot-lines. Akbar Ahmed, professor at American University and author of Islam under Siege, holds that “For the United States, understanding Muslims is not a luxury. It is an imperative. There is an intense debate in the Muslim world, and it is unclear which type of Islam will prevail: the more fundamentalist, aggressive type or the more moderate, compassionate type.” What is needed, he says, is “to create trust between societies through dialogue and understanding” – something Ahmed does by taking his graduate students into the heart of Muslim societies across the region to know for themselves -- and to be known by others. It should not be lost on any of us that America's entry into Iraq has radically increased the influence of ardent Islamism in that country.}

Militant Islamic Groups and Terrorism: Iranians, like Americans, are concerned about terrorism and reject Osama bin Laden overwhelmingly…however, majorities have positive views of Hamas and Hezbollah. Iranians overwhelmingly reject attacks intentionally aimed at civilians, including those targeting Americans. Americans concur, though the percentage of Iranians who reject such attacks is somewhat higher than the percentage of Americans who do so.

{Iran has turned over Al Qaeda suspects to the United States as recently as 2003. Based on an audit by the Government Accounting Office released in early August, 2007, so many U.S.-supplied weapons (at least 165,000) were simply "going missing" in Iraq -- quite possibly falling into militia or insurgent hands -- that the odds are much, much greater of an American GI being killed by one of our own guns than by an imported explosive device, yet Iran is being held accountable for every IED used in Iraq, every missile fired by Hezbollah and every attack launched from Gaza.}
Views of the United States and Iran: Very large majorities of Iranians have negative views of the United States overall, its influence in the world, its current government, its current president [then George W. Bush], and its culture. Views of the American people, however, are almost evenly divided. Large majorities perceive that US foreign policy is threatening and that US bases in the Middle East are destabilizing the region and threatening to Iran… Most Americans…agree that US bases in the region are threatening to Iran. A clear majority of Americans also have a negative view of the Iranian people…a growing majority of Iranians believe Iran is having a positive influence in the world.

{Recently, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski quoted a BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries: Israel, Iran and the United States (in that order) were rated the states with “the most negative influence on the world.” “Alas,” Brzezinski bemoaned, “for some that is the new axis of evil!” Currently, U.S. Troops are stationed in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Uzbekistan, to name a few. All told, Americans maintain a total of 737 bases outside of US territory, not counting 98 “temporary” bases. The number of Western troops in Muslim countries, on a per capita basis (of the indigenous population), is 32 times what it was during the height of the Crusades. This includes 24 major bases placed in areas that surround Iran: 7 in Iraq, 5 in Kuwait, 3 in Pakistan, 2 each in Afghanistan, Oman and Bahrain, and others in Turkey, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan.

We should note, however, that there has been a shift in attitudes even within the West. Anne Applebaum, in a column for the Washington Post, said five years ago," for American leadership has declined among our traditional friends: Britain, Poland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands...Since 2002, according to the latest German Marshall Fund 'transatlantic trends' survey, support for 'U.S. leadership in world affairs'... has plunged by 30 percentage points in Germany, 26 points in Italy, 24 points in Poland, 23 points in Netherlands and 22 points in Britain...What's more curious is that our friends' faith in us has weakened just as their perceptions of potential threats are growing ever more similar to ours...we all worry terrorism, a nuclear Iran, global epidemics -- in almost equal measure."}

(More data from this survey in my next post.)

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