Niall Ferguson: Hatred of America unites the world

Roundup: Historians' Take

Being hated is no fun. Few of us are like those pantomime villains who glory in the hisses and boos of an audience. And few people hate being hated more than Americans. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've been asked the plaintive question: "Why do they hate us?" and another for each of the different answers I've heard. It's because of our foreign policy. It's because of their extremism. It's because of our arrogance. It's because of their inferiority complex. Americans really hate not knowing why they're hated.

The best explanation is in fact the simplest. Being hated is what happens to dominant empires. It comes - sometimes literally - with the territory. George Orwell knew the feeling. As a young man he served as an assistant police superintendent in British-run Burma, an experience he memorably described in his essay "Shooting an Elephant". Called upon to kill a rogue pachyderm that had run amok, Orwell was suddenly aware "of the watchful yellow faces behind" him:

"The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh."

Eric Blair, as Orwell was known then, could scarcely have been better prepared for his role as a colonial official. Born in Bengal, the son of a colonial civil servant, he had been educated at Eton, where boys learn not to worry much about being hated. Yet even he found the resentment of the natives hard to bear: "In the end the sneering... faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves ... [It] was perplexing and upsetting."

That's a feeling American soldiers in Baghdad must know pretty well. How does that old Randy Newman song go? "No one likes us - I don't know why. / We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try."

But who hates Americans the most? You might assume that it's people in countries that the United States has recently attacked or threatened to attack. Americans themselves are clear about who their principal enemies are. Asked by Gallup to name the "greatest enemy" of the United States today, 26 per cent of those polled named Iran, 21 per cent named Iraq and 18 per cent named North Korea. Incidentally, that represents quite a success for George W. Bush's concept of the "Axis of Evil". Six years ago, only 8 per cent named Iran and only 2 per cent North Korea.

Are those feelings of antagonism reciprocated? Up to a point. According to a poll by Gallup's Centre for Muslim Studies, 52 per cent of Iranians have an unfavourable view of the United States. But that figure is down from 63 per cent in 2001. And it's significantly lower than the degree of antipathy towards the United States felt in Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of Jordanians and Pakistanis have a negative view of the United States and a staggering 79 per cent of Saudis. Sentiment has also turned hostile in Lebanon, where 59 per cent of people now have an unfavourable opinion of the United States, compared with just 41 per cent a year ago. No fewer than 84 per cent of Lebanese Shiites say they have a very unfavourable view of Uncle Sam.

These figures suggest a paradox in the Muslim world. It's not America's enemies who hate the United States most, it's people in countries that are supposed to be America's friends, if not allies.

The paradox doesn't end there. The Gallup poll (which surveyed 10,000 Muslims in 10 different countries) also revealed that the wealthier and better-educated Muslims are, the more likely they are to be politically radical. So if you ever believed that anti-Western sentiment was an expression of poverty and deprivation, think again. Even more perplexingly, Islamists are more supportive of democracy than Muslim moderates. Those who imagined that the Middle East could be stabilised with a mixture of economic and political reform could not have been more wrong. The richer these people get, the more they favour radical Islamism. And they see democracy as a way of putting the radicals into power....

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Vernon Clayson - 3/4/2007

Somehow it always goes back to Russian revolutionaries for so many commentators among the intelligentsia when they need a quotation to denounce the US. Islam is merely a religion currently practiced by Middle Easteners who, one might say, practically invented barter and the power of money to provide the good life is part of that for them and was that before Mohammad, when the denizens of that area were worshipping cats, crocodiles and pharoahs. When does Mr. Adams think history started, when Russian revolutionaries began making their version of Quotable Quotes?

Lorraine Paul - 3/3/2007

Very interesting point!

rob h adams - 3/3/2007

May one then assume safely that radical Islamic democracy does not propose to redistribute wealth? If that is the case, then radical Islam might not in that sense be all that different from the newly evolved American style democracy of capitalism first, everything else second - perhaps new radical Islamic regimes may one day fit Trotsky's description of America as "ruled by the moral philosphy of the dollar."??