Originally appeared in The Indian Express, December 13, 2002

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are facing relentless criticism in the western media despite their status as ‘‘indispensable allies’’ of the United States. The security alliances of these Muslim nations have failed to translate into true friendship with the west, largely because of divergent worldviews and strategic concerns. Several recent opinion polls have highlighted the widespread negative perception of US policies in Arab and Muslim countries. On the other hand, a recent survey of American public opinion, published by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), showed that while the importance of key Islamic countries is recognised across the US, Muslim states are not looked upon favourably.

For example, a mere 10 % of Americans consider Pakistan as a very reliable partner in the war against terrorism, compared with 50% who find Pakistan unreliable and 33% who think it is only somewhat reliable. The CCFR also developed a public opinion thermometer to gauge the degree of warmth that Americans feel towards different countries of the world in the aftermath of September 11. Pakistan scored 31 degrees, Saudi Arabia stood at 33 compared with 46 degrees for India.

Some Muslim ideologues are likely to use these findings, and the persistent criticism of leading Muslim governments, to claim that the Muslim world and the west led by the US are on collision course. But, according to the CCFR survey, only 27% of Americans think that a clash between Muslims and the West is inevitable.

An encouraging 66% believes that they can find common ground and that the clash of civilisations can be avoided. The average American does not want the US to take sides between Israel and the Palestinians.

The survey should help leaders of Muslim states allied to the US to understand where they have gone wrong in maintaining close ties with the west. Muslim rulers have built strategic partnerships with the decision-makers in the US foreign policy establishment just as Washington has backed these mostly authoritarian rulers in return for affordable oil or military cooperation.

In the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington, westerners are spending a great deal of time, resources and energy in identifying the causes of Muslim rage against the US. But similar introspection is missing in the Muslim world. Americans are keen to understand why some people hate them enough to want to fly planes into buildings and to blow themselves up while trying to kill innocent civilians. Shouldn’t Muslim leaders ask themselves the reasons for western mistrust of states that are ostensibly allied to the west?

Western civilisation admires achievement and creativity and Muslims have fared poorly in both spheres since their encounter with western ascendancy. The 56 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined GDP is less than te GDP of France.

The 22 Arab countries, including the oil-exporting Gulf States, account for a combined GDP less than that of Spain alone. Almost 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population are illiterate. Muslims are noticeably absent from the list of inventors or innovators in science and technology.

The only ‘Muslim’ to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline (Dr Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist) is not considered a Muslim under the law of his country of birth.

Muslim output in literature is abysmally low. The arts remain marginalised in most Muslim states. While ideas direct the course of power in the west, those in power control the flow of ideas in the Muslim world.

An example of the difference between the Muslim and the western world is the manner in which each approaches religious controversy. Jewish Rabbis and Christian priests write books and produce television shows to make their point while Muslims riot in the streets or attack the opponent physically when faced with a perceived insult to their religion.

Instead of working towards bridging this gap, most Muslim leaders have directed their energies towards generating anger towards the west’s hegemony and self-centredness. There is little discussion in Pakistan, for example, of the internal weaknesses of the nation or how to redress them.

The result of the focus on ‘‘external enemies’’ is the creation of what some western scholars have termed the victim’s mindset among Muslims. Extremism is a by-product of this mindset among those who think their victimhood justifies a violent and brutal response.

The lack of creativity in the Muslim world is partly the result of authoritarianism. It is difficult to generate new ideas in an atmosphere that demands conformity. Religious pluralism, too, is not possible in an atmosphere lacking in political pluralism.

In most cases, Muslim rulers have embraced restrictive interpretations of religion as the price for the support of theocrats. While Muslim intellectuals react to the slightest manifestation of western racism, little is said about racism within the Ummah (community of believers).

Muslims complain of being disrespected by the west instead of concentrating on earning the world’s admiration through economic, scientific and cultural achievement. Just as the US needs to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world by altering its foreign policy, the Muslim states need to win western support by moving away from stagnant domestic systems.