Competition among political forces, not religious fundamentalism, inflames anti-Americanism in the Muslim world

to the messages of local political leaders. “That helps shape views — and that’s what led us to this theory,” he says. “It’s not a feature unique to the Muslim world; it’s how people form their opinions.”

Historically, domestic political divisions within Muslim politics have fallen between secular elite and fundamental Islamic elite factions. Both groups have long laid claims to anti-American grievances, Linzer notes.

Examining the data, an interesting pattern emerged: As domestic political competition intensifies between secular and religious factions, anti-American sentiment arises, as respective parties attempt to exploit those attitudes for political gain. “Competition between these groups heats up and they start using those claims to gain support,” Linzer says.

Surprisingly, that competition appears most intense not in the most deeply observant Islamic countries, but where divisions between secular and religious factions are sharpest. There, competition between political forces — not religious fundamentalism — appears to spark the greatest anti-American sentiment, the researchers found.

Changing hearts and minds
The release notes that the study, while demonstrating that anti-Americanism in the Islamic world is not tied exclusively to U.S. foreign policy or cultural differences, underscores a practical reality:

In order to change hearts and minds overseas, American diplomacy and public relations strategies must compete with local political environments with an established tradition of promoting negative views.

In many countries, political factions will likely continue to use animosity toward America as an instrument of mobilization — citing grievances often fed by U.S. actions and policy.  As long as they do, there are segments of Muslim audiences who will be receptive to the message,” Linzer acknowledges.

While media outlets, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, also play a significant role in spreading that message, competing national politicians remain the most potent component of the public opinion formula, the researchers assert.

Any American-led effort to change the story in the most anti-American countries will have to find a way to counter the effects on Muslim minds of local politicians spouting anti-U.S. rhetoric in order to bolster their own positions and win supporters,” the study asserts.

What has been achieved? I would be happy if there was a better understanding of this phenomenon,” Linzer says. “I think the current debate has stalled — particularly because it isn’t the whole story.”

— Read more in Lisa Blaydes and Drew A. Linzer, “Elite Competition, Religiosity, and Anti-Americanism in the Islamic World,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012): 225-43 (DOI: