What are the causes of anti-Americanism in the Middle East?

Essays | Teymur Naghibeyli | 14-03-2017, 09:20

What are the causes of anti-Americanism in the Middle East?Anti-Americanism, whose initial roots go back to the 18th century, has been one of the major trends across the Middle East particularly after the 9/11 terror acts. Although anti-American sentiments in the Middle East first appeared in the aftermath of the American involvement into the region during the 1930s and 1940s, and intensified during the Cold War, anti-Americanism in the region culminated particularly after the 9/11. That was the time when ‘terrorist anti-American’ attitudes spread throughout the Middle East. Since evidence has been found that anti-Americanism hurts American interests and values directly or indirectly, undermining the soft capital the US enjoys, its causes and consequences should be thoroughly investigated (Katzenstein & Keohane, 2007). This essay is an attempt to analyze some of the causes and consequences of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. 

In defining anti-Americanism, it was argued that it is not ‘a comprehensive or coherent belief system or ideology’, but a set of condemnations and critiques, as well as prejudices against America. The roots of these critiques of America go back to a European portrayal of America as uncivilized and uncouth place that spread long before America came to be a global power in the world (O'Connor, 2004: 77). Hence, the term “anti-Americanism” initially emerged as a cultural critique of America, later extending to biased political and economic judgments, when the United States turned into a global power after the decay of the British Empire. Particularly after the 9/11 terror acts, a new stage of anti-Americanism started primarily in the Middle East titled as 'anti-American terrorism' (Rubin & Rubin, 2002). Although anti-Americanism was broadly understood as ' any hostile action or expression that becomes part and parcel of an undifferentiated attack to the United States' (Rubinstein & Smith, 1988: 35), the term’s usage can only be justified ‘if it implies systematic opposition - a sort of allergic reaction - to America as a whole' (Toinet, 1990: 219). Anti-Americanism is also ‘a psychological tendency to hold negative views of the United States and of American society in general’ (Katzenstei & Keohane, 2007: 12). In other words, anti-Americanism refers to dislike or hostility toward the United States and their policy, culture, business and all those things associated with the identity and power of America. For the understanding of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, its differentiation from any reasonable opposition to the U.S. policies in the Middle East is needed. Hence, holding political views opposing the U.S. policies should not be enough to classify them as anti-Americanism. 


Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

In fact, anti-Americanism emerged in the Middle East during its third and fourth stages. The initial roots of anti-Americanism indeed go back to the 18th century when America was described as ‘a very backward country culturally' (Hamsum, 1969: 15), the Americans were viewed as rude people (Orwell, 1970). 

The history of anti-Americanism can be divided into four stages. The first stage covers a period of the establishment of European colonies in America till the end of the World War II when anti-Americanism was based on the European cultural superiority over the American cultural backwardness. The second stage covers a period of the Cold War (1945-1989) when ideological and political motivations were attached to the anti-American attitudes. Those states that were influenced by the Soviet Union, including some in the Middle East, viewed America negatively as “the enemy of socialism”. The third stage started with the termination of the Cold War till the 9/11 events when anti-Americanism became a key part of the anti-globalization movements. Finally, the last stage covers a period after the terror acts that proliferated extremist anti-Americanism (Rubin & Rubin, 2002). Although the Americans’ entry into the Middle East was associated with the decline of the British Empire that enabled the American oil companies to get embarked in oil exploration in the region during the 1930-1940s, the anti-American sentiments in the Middle East developed considerably during the third and fourth stages described above (Yergin, 1990).

What is more, it was mainly radical anti-Americanism that spread across the Middle East. The categorization of anti-American sentiment shows that they may be classified into four strides according to the ideological emphasis made: radical, socialist, liberal and sovereign- nationalist reflecting different contexts existing in the globalized world. While social and liberal “versions” of anti-Americanism emerged in democratic societies, sovereign-nationalist anti-American sentiment has firmly gained ground in the non-democratic states outside Europe, including China and Mexico. It is radical anti-Americanism that has expanded in Middle East, particularly, after the 9/11 terror acts (Katzenstein & Keohane, 2007).

The 9/11 forced many Americans to pose a direct question: 'why do they hate us?'- referring to the terrorist groups and their supporters. The shock of 9/11 was an absolute surprise for much of American society, and with it came a bitter understanding of the extent of disdained the U.S. receive in the Middle East. The attack demonstrated the image of America in the Middle East (O'Connor, 2004: 85), motivating many analysts and scholars to investigate the causes of endemic anti-Americanism in the Middle East. It is commonly believed that the 9/11 ‘was a reaction to misguided United States policies’ in the Middle East such as American support to Israel as well as its protection of some oppressive Arab ruling elites, which caused deep grievances across the region that ‘came to a boil over time, and finally spilled over on September 11’ (Rubin, 2002).

The causes of anti-Americanism in the region have been explained through mainly two approaches: the cultural approach and the rational approach. While the cultural approach believes that anti-Americanism in the Middle East is mainly a particular idiosyncrasy stemming from socio-cultural peculiarities of the region and that it has nothing to do with the American policies, the rational explanation claims that anti-Americanism is directly associated with the U.S. Middle East polices. The rational approach argues that anti-American attitudes in the Middle East are a rational reaction to the particular policies pursued by Washington. However, a cultural perspective viewed anti-Americanism in the Middle East primarily as a backlash against American modernity (Ajami, 2002). Hence, while the cultural approach emphasizes the irrationality of anti-American actions, the rational approach states that anti-American sentiments in the Middle East are logical and predictable responses to the American policies. 

At the same time, anti-Americanism in the Middle East is also believed to be linked to the anti-globalization movement that rejected ‘a world dominated by American capitalist interests and American culture’ (O'Connor & Griffiths, 2006). Many anti-globalists viewed ‘America’ as a key force behind many of the arduous challenges of the world. The anti-globalist approach to the U.S. considerably heated the anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. Particularly, the 9/11 is seen as a response to American-led globalization and westernization. In short, anti-Americanism is a reaction to the globalization movement. 




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Teymur Naghibeyli

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