IF WE NEEDED more evidence that the anti-American vitriol from Europe and the Middle East is largely the product of manipulated imaginations, we have it. A new World Public Opinion poll of 17 nations reveals significant support for the claim that the United States staged the 9/11 terrorist attacks--presumably for its own malicious and imperialistic designs.
The poll, conducted between July 15 and August 31 and involving over 16,000 respondents, suggests that America's European and NATO "allies" are in fact infested with legions of anti-American conspiracy theorists. A slight majority of Britons blame al Qaeda for the attacks (57 percent), but another 26 percent say they don't know who the perpetrators were. The numbers were roughly the same for the French and the Italians, many of whom (8 percent and 13 percent, respectively) think the United States authored the act. Among Germans, nearly a fourth of all respondents (23 percent) finger the United States. Yes, one in four.
Likewise, the poll response among Muslim-majority nations signals that the battle for "hearts and minds" in the Islamic world is not going well. In Turkey, where anti-Americanism has spiked in recent years, an astonishing 36 percent of respondents blame the United States for the attacks. In the comparatively moderate state of Indonesia, less than a fourth of all respondents (23 percent) think al Qaeda orchestrated 9/11, while the majority (57 percent) claims they have no idea.
The poll results also demonstrate the insidious link between anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. A full 43 percent of Egyptians believe that Israel engineered the attacks. In Jordan, 31 percent blame Israel--nearly three times the number who credit al Qaeda with the plot. (Both countries record high levels of anti-American sentiment.) The figures come as no surprise: A year after the 9/11 attacks, I met with a group of Jordanian graduate students on a tour of think tanks and government agencies in Washington, D.C. They were smart, professional, and politically informed--and nearly unanimous in their belief that "the Jews" were behind the terrorist attacks. A nation churning out PhD candidates who cannot discern the difference between brute facts and fascist bile is a nation in the vice-grip of a social and spiritual disease.
True, the deep suspicions about 9/11 and American credibility in the Muslim world can partly be explained by the Bush administration's wrenching mistakes in Iraq, from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction to the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib. But the conspiratorial culture that engulfs much of the Arab and Muslim world is something altogether different. As a growing number of Arab reformers confess, a widespread sense of failure among Muslims--a crisis of confidence--has produced a desperate search for scapegoats. "The distortion of the image of the United States has become a political objective for Arab governments in their struggle for survival," writes Omran Salman of the Middle East Media Research Institute, "and a tool to banish the specter of democracy and change in the Arab region."
What about the Europeans? How is it that so many enlightened minds seem trapped in a byzantine world of political superstitions? How is it that the children of Rousseau and Voltaire embrace theories that draw strength from the forces of irrationalism and despotism? Despite repeated claims of responsibility by Osama bin Laden for the attacks, despite video confessions of his suicidal minions, despite testimony from scores of witnesses confirming al Qaeda involvement, despite the conclusions of intelligence agencies from around the world--despite all this and more, European suspicions about American guilt persist.
Perhaps the Enlightenment spirit of Voltaire is partly to blame. As Pope Benedict XVI has warned, Europeans who sever themselves from Christian doctrines are vulnerable to all kinds of ideologies eager to fill the void. Secular Europeans, slavishly devoted to the soothing powers of diplomacy, have a difficult time taking the problem of evil seriously, especially when it claims a religious sanction. They instinctively seek a political explanation--no matter how improbable. Americans, whose Constitution pays homage to the doctrine of original sin, find it easier to imagine the existence of individuals, and entire social movements, given over to moral and spiritual corruption. "The Bible says somewhere that mankind is desperately wicked," quipped Abraham Lincoln. "I think I would have discovered that fact without the Bible."
There are many reasons for anti-Americanism, of course, some as manifestly irrational as the views expressed in the Word Public Opinion Poll. What tends to be ignored, though, is the influence of mass media. A content analysis study released by the U.S. Institute for Peace last year found that across all seven European and Arab TV news outlets examined, "negative coverage" of the United States far outweighed "positive coverage." What the Institute for Peace considers negative coverage a more judicious observer might call shameless propaganda, revisionism, or hate speech. The point is that images of America as international gangster gush forth daily from the print and broadcast media of Europe and the Arab world. They help shape the narrative of these societies--from the imam who calls for the destruction of the Great Satan during Friday's prayers to the Anglican bishop whose pulpit oratory confuses political bombast about American "imperialism" with a message of redeeming grace.
In this sense, the widespread belief in a crackpot conspiracy theory--in which the U.S. government secretly staged a massive and lethal assault against its own civilian population--is comprehensible. That it has become tolerable, even fashionable, suggests that old dogmas and ancient hatreds are alive and well.
Joe Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.