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"Better numb than Islam"

The attitudes of most American citizens to violence against Muslims bodes ill for democracy in the United States.

Over the half-century cold war, when the United States's enemy was the Soviet Union and the fight against communism was Washington's main priority, “better dead than red” was far more than a slogan. It epitomised and rationalised American public opinion's relative acceptance of huge defence budgets at home and abhorrent procedures abroad such as punitive wars, clandestine interventions, killing of foreign leaders and export of torture techniques. In the course of changing geopolitics, "better red than dead" found a new focus. Even before the collapse of the USSR, but especially after 9/11, America’s “war against terror” seemed to generate a new logic among a very large number of US citizens: “better numb than Islam”.

Andrew Bacevich, fellow at Columbia University, showed in a Washington Post op-ed that fourteen countries where Muslims form the vast majority have been invaded, occupied or bombed by the United States since 1980; most recently, US drone-warfare has targeted Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya (see "Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we'll still lose the bigger war", 3 October 2014). A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the use of US armed forces abroad, published in September 2014, concluded that the overwhelming percentage of the 146 deployments over the post-cold-war period has been against Muslim-populated nations.

What do we know about American perceptions of and reactions to this hardline, bellicose policy towards the Islamic world? Several polls over 2013-14, after most American troops left Iraq and their presence in Afghanistan was also much reduced, provide some evidence. A Gallup poll of March 2013, for example, showed that 65% of Americans favour drone airstrikes; a Rasmussen poll of December 2014 puts the number at 71%. Moreover, two different polls in July 2014 reflect highly negative opinions vis-à-vis Islam. A Pew Research poll on religious groups found that Muslims received the coldest rating, while a Zogby Analytics poll confirmed that attitudes towards Muslims were worsening. In addition, another Pew Research poll of September 2014 concluded that Americans see Islam as encouraging more violence than other religions.

The disclosure in December 2014 of the Senate intelligence-committee's report on torture by the CIA in the post-9/11 years has not seemed to alter the adverse views of Islam held by most Americans, nor their backing for whatever the United States government does. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News survey confirms that a majority of the US public holds that torture was justifiable after 11 September 2001. 

Why does brutalising civilians in the Muslim world not provoke any sympathy towards the victims? Why are Americans unmoved or disturbed by the illegal and immoral practices of the US intelligence system? Why is a very large percentage of US citizens so indifferent to or supportive of the amount of violence that the United States deploys against Muslims in their countries? Why are Americans willing to see their own democracy eroded in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, central Asia, and north Africa?

In the end, the combination of fear, frustration, and fatalism among Americans is perfect for legitimising abuse and injustice. If the logic of “better numb than Islam” is truly prevailing, then Americans - and those in the rest  the world - should get ready for a severe downgrade of US democracy.

About the author

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Full Professor and director of the department of political science and international studies at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés, also in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-9

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian es Profesor Plenario y director del departamento de ciencias políticas y estudios internacionales de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella en Buenos Aires. Previamente fue profesor en la Universidad de San Andrés, también en Argentina. Se doctoró en relaciones internacional en la John Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. Residió en Colombia entre 1981-98.

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