Tsunami Aid Changed Some Muslims' Attitudes Towards US

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Tsunami Aid Changed Some Muslims' Attitudes Towards US

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - America's humanitarian response to Southeast Asia's devastating tsunami is changing the views Muslims in the affected areas have of the United States, President Bush said Tuesday.

"I think the world is beginning to see a different impression of America," he said after receiving a report from former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on their efforts to raise private contributions to the humanitarian campaign.

In a recent poll of attitudes in Indonesia, 65 percent of respondents said they viewed the U.S. in a more favorable light as a result of the U.S. tsunami relief effort. The group which commissioned the poll said the results reflected "the first substantial shift of public opinion in the Muslim world" since 9/11.

Bush said his two predecessors had on a recent visit to the stricken areas experienced "an outpouring of great kindness everywhere they went."

"I'm heartened that the good folks of Indonesia, for example, see a different America now when they think about our country," he said.

"They see a country which of course will defend our security, but a country which also cares deeply about suffering people, regardless of their religion, that when we find a Muslim child suffering we weep just as equally as when we find another child that suffers."

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, public opinion polls in recent years have shown an antipathy towards the U.S., evidently resulting from opposition to what many see as an anti-Muslim sentiment behind the war against Islamist terror, launched after 9/11. That trend appeared to grow after the Iraq war.

With 200,000 people dead or missing, Indonesia'a Aceh province was the area hardest-hit by the tsunami generated by an undersea earthquake off its coast on Dec. 26. Thousands more died in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and elsewhere.

Emergency aid efforts were spearheaded by the U.S. military, with ships, planes, and helicopters establishing a rapid supply chain to the worst-affected regions. The operation involved 16,000 personnel, 26 ships, 58 helicopters and 43 fixed-wing aircraft.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) undertook what its administrator, Andrew Natsios, said was "one of the largest relief efforts in its history in order to save lives, mitigate human suffering, and reduce the economic impact of the Indian Ocean disaster."

Bush pledged $350 million for humanitarian relief and reconstruction, later increasing the figure to $950 million - America's largest humanitarian pledge ever, according to Natsios.

U.S. private sector contributions had reached almost $1 billion, the former presidents reported to Bush.

The two both cited a recent poll, carried out by leading Indonesian polling organization LSI, which found significant shifts in opinion regarding the U.S. when compared to similar polls carried out two years ago.

Commissioned by a U.S. non-profit group called Terror Free Tomorrow, the LSI survey of 1,200 adults across the archipelago found that 40 percent supported U.S.-led efforts against terrorism, up from 23 percent in a 2003 poll.

The number of those who opposed the anti-terror efforts dropped by half, from 72 percent two years ago to 36 percent today.

Terror Free Tomorrow said respondents were also asked whether U.S. aid to tsunami victims was affecting their view of the country.

Sixty-five percent said they now felt more favorable to the U.S. because of the American response, with the highest percentage (71.3) coming from those under 30.

Even among respondents who voiced sympathy for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, 71 percent said U.S. tsunami relief had made them feel more favorable towards the U.S., the organization said.

Established in 2004, Terror Free Tomorrow argues that an effective way of countering terrorism is "to defeat the support base that empowers al-Qaeda and its allies."

The group said the poll showed that that support base in Indonesia had significantly declined.

"U.S. actions can make a significant and immediate difference in eroding the support base for global terrorists," it said, urging the U.S. to sustain its relief and reconstruction efforts in Indonesia.

"This is a front in the war on terrorism where the United States can continue to achieve additional success."

'Quick to react'

Professor Arief Budiman, head of the Indonesian program at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said Wednesday the poll results did not surprise him.

"I believe that there is now a more positive attitude towards the U.S. among the Indonesian population," he said, adding that the LSI polling firm was "a professional and respectable research institution."

Budiman saw two primary reasons for the shift.

After the tsunami, Indonesians saw that that the U.S. and Australia had reacted quickly, while fellow Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia "reacted very slowly, even slower than Japan and China."

It would therefore not surprise him, he said, that Indonesians, and Muslims in general, "have a more positive attitude now towards the Western world."

The other reason for the shift in Indonesia arose from Indonesia's experiences with radical Islam.

Bombings carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiah in Bali, at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, and at the Australian Embassy in the capital, as well as the trials of suspected terrorists, had "made the Indonesian people believe that those associated with radical Islam/Jemaah Islamiah are not good people."

This in turn led to the view that the West "may not be as bad" as bin Laden and other Islamic radicals had been saying, Budiman said.

'America wins'

In Washington, former President Bush attributed the "dramatic change" reflected in the poll to Indonesians' response to "the kindness, the outpouring of support for the tsunami victims."

"I'll tell you what we saw," added Clinton. "Every little place we went, people came up and thanked us for what the American military did in bringing in humanitarian supplies, or what the USAID workers are doing, what the American non-governmental organizations were doing."

Clinton said Indonesians knew that Americans participating in the relief effort were there simply because they wanted to help. There was no ulterior motive.

"But when you relate to people on a human basis, you send a message that our common humanity matters more than our differences. And when people believe that, America wins, the cause of freedom wins."

An earlier hint of changes in Indonesian public opinion came last September, when another poll found more support there than expected for U.S. policies.

A poll of 35 countries surveyed by the University of Maryland's program on international policy attitudes (PIPA) focused on the Bush-Kerry campaign, but respondents were also asked whether Bush's foreign policy decisions made them feel "better" or "worse" about the U.S.

In only three countries did more respondents say Bush policies made them feel better about the U.S., and all three - the Philippines, Thailand and India - were in Asia.

Although Indonesia wasn't one of them, opinion there was fairly evenly divided - 49 percent of respondents said the foreign policies made them feel worse about the U.S., and 44 percent said the policies made them feel better.

By contrast, the countries with the strongest negative views of Bush foreign policy included such traditional allies as Germany (where 83 percent of respondents said the policies made them feel worse), France (81) and Canada (71).

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