World paints different America

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2001

Abdel Malek does not hate America. He just doesn't like it as much anymore.

Malek, 36, is a Muslim who lives a thoroughly modern life in a fashionable suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the wealthiest nations in southeast Asia. He adores Michael Jordan and never misses a Steven Seagal movie.

He used to believe America stood for justice and human rights.

''I'd watch on CNN how the U.S. would be the first to condemn any wrongdoing anywhere in the world,'' he said.

Once U.S. jets started bombing Afghanistan in October, however, Malek cut back on CNN, distressed by the images of Afghan parents weeping for children killed by errant bombs.

''You start to think more and more about what the U.S. actually is, behind that mask of rhetoric,'' Malek said. ''They may have their reasons in blaming Osama bin Laden, but to invade a country, kill innocent people to take out one man, how do you justify that?

''Now I think every country, including the U.S., will say one thing and then do exactly the opposite if it serves their interest. I am no longer idealistic or trust what people say. I take everything now with a pinch -- make that a barrel -- of salt.''

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With the rout of the Taliban and al-Qaida, the United States has shown it can crush a repressive Third World regime. But can it make friends overseas? Do its ideals still hold persuasive power, or must it rely on bombs?

As America looks beyond Afghanistan in its war against terrorism, it can count on a certain reservoir of global good will -- but not enough to squander.

Throughout the world, including in heavily Islamic countries, plenty of people admire U.S. ideals of liberty, democracy and tolerance. Many are quick to complain, however, that America doesn't always live up to its principles, especially in foreign affairs. Such dissatisfaction slides easily into disillusionment, especially with a nudge from Islamic fundamentalists eager to portray America as a sinful nation bent on destroying Islam.

To gauge how the non-Western world views America's most cherished values, Associated Press reporters interviewed a sampling of citizens across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Taken together, they reflect an unstable world in which the balance between love and loathing of America can shift quickly. Local miseries get blamed on America, fairly or not. And contradictions abound: Witness those who denounce U.S. culture as evil, all while sipping Coke and watching ''Ally McBeal.''

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Amid the complexities, there still are some straight-ahead, old-fashioned fans of America.

''The United States is doubtlessly the most dedicated country in the world in protecting human life, rights and dignity, as well as democracy and freedom,'' said Choi Jung-suk, 62, a retired air force colonel in South Korea and now an executive with the Korean Veterans Association.

He views America as a ''blood-tied ally,'' recalling the Korean War, in which more than 33,000 U.S. soldiers died defending South Korea against communist North Korea. That was a just cause, Choi believes, as is the current campaign against terrorism.

''Terrorism is not only a challenge to democracy and freedom,'' Choi said. ''It is also a disrespect to human life. Thus the U.S. retaliation is a punishment under the name of justice.''

Justice for all. Freedom of worship. The right to speak freely and elect leaders. Such tenets of Western democracy have proved remarkably durable, spreading throughout the world. Where they are officially renounced by an authoritarian government, they tend to simmer amid the populace.

Americans attach themselves to such noble ideals, especially when waging war. They see their America as a nation that keeps to itself unless mightily provoked. President Bush said he was fighting terrorism ''to save civilization itself.''

Outside the United States, however, many people see the world's lone superpower as more heavy-handed than high-minded.

Some blame America for killing thousands of innocents in Iraq through bombing and economic sanctions.

The United States even gets blamed for tragedies not of its making. In Rwanda, resentment lingers over its slowness to respond in 1994 when more than a half-million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred.

''Rwanda was too small, was of no strategic importance to the U.S.,'' said Jean Baptiste Kayigamba, 38, a Rwandan journalist who lost his parents and five of his seven siblings in the massacres.

Throughout the Middle East, many Muslims consider America's military presence in Saudi Arabia to be a defilement of Islamic holy lands, and they believe U.S. support has helped Israel remain a disruptive force in the region.

''America is behind all our trouble,'' said Leila Khaled of Amman, Jordan.

She knows trouble well, having hijacked two airliners in 1969 and 1970 for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Now a member of the PLO's parliament, 57-year-old Khaled condemns the Sept. 11 attacks but thinks Americans should consider why they were targeted.

U.S. actions in the Middle East, she says, are driven not by high ideals but by an addiction to Arab oil. She says America has propped up puppet governments, defended totalitarian regimes and disrupted democracies.

''Where is the United States' torch of liberty and justice in all of this?'' she asks. ''Those ideals are meant for the American people only. Beyond its borders, America's policy is hegemony and arrogance, which has driven nations against the United States.''

Beyond complaining about specific policies, many Muslims suspect that America is leading the world down a secular, immoral path. They worry about the ''Westoxication'' of their culture by consumerism and fast living. To them, America's vaunted ''freedoms'' are little more than licenses to sin.

In Iran, where the Islamic revolution of 1979 reversed a long trend toward westernization, anti-Americanism is an institution, though one that is beginning to fray around the edges.

Ghader Mansouri, 35, a school teacher, lives with his wife and young daughter in a small Tehran apartment on $100 a month, a modest salary by Iranian standards.

Their only vehicle is a motorcycle. Mansouri says he is ''happy and satisfied'' with his life, and while he grants that America may be more comfortable than Iran, he adds that American freedoms carry a moral cost.

''Can you close your eyes to these social vices and corruption we see from the American movies? There are huge numbers of crimes, rapes, sexual abuses, sexual harassment and many mistreatments of the women there,'' Mansouri said.

''I cannot imagine the negative effects of this culture for the youth when they grow up. I cannot accept at all that this much freedom is helpful and good for the society.''

Even in Iran, anti-Americanism is not absolute. Iran and America found common ground in opposing the Taliban. And Western influences keep seeping into Iranian culture, despite the misgivings of clerics. With help from U.S. advisers, for example, Iran is training a national team in the thoroughly American sport of baseball.

Mansouri himself comes across as thoughtful, not radical.

Yet this is still Iran. After his chat with a reporter, Mansouri and his wife went to Tehran's main mosque. They filed into segregated sections: men in front, women in back. Then everyone began to shout.

''Death to America,'' they chanted. ''Death to Israel.''

Friday prayers had begun.

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Given a chance to export images of their nation's most cherished ideals, many Americans might choose a Norman Rockwell collage of patriotic scenes. They'd picture voters striding dutifully to the polls, or fresh-scrubbed school kids at their desks.

They certainly would not picture this scene, at a coffee shop in the Ikea furniture store of Beijing:

A 24-year-old man stands out from the crowd with his leather jacket, black pants and straight, black hair falling to the small of his back. His name is Zhang Nan, though he goes by the stage name Mummify Zhang when playing guitar in his death-metal band, Stale Corpse.

Zhang says his first contact with American culture came during middle school through a smuggled tape cassette of the heavy-metal band Metallica.

''It made an instant connection in my brain, and I knew that's what I wanted to do,'' Zhang said.

He has since filled in around the edges with other images of America. He says he admires U.S. freedoms, especially the freedom to express oneself, and he believes America's biggest problem abroad is envy.

''They see American strength, and it makes them mad because they want their country to be like that,'' he said.

The images that America spreads most vigorously around the world are not ones that Americans should be proud of, says Najib al-Othman, a civil engineer in Kuwait City.

''There is McDonalds, fast music and violent movies,'' al-Othman said.

He is a Muslim, but no extremist. Al-Othman wears a shirt and pants to work, not the traditional white robe, or dishdasha, favored by most Kuwaitis. He attended Syracuse University in New York, and he heartily endorses U.S.-style civil liberties such as equality for all and innocence until guilt is proven.

The official Kuwaiti stance toward America, ever since U.S. forces beat back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, has been one of gratitude. But a suspicion of Western ways persists.

Al-Othman says his teen-age daughters want to go out unaccompanied, as teens do on American TV shows, and they don't understand when he tells them no.

''The difference is creating conflicts between us and our children, because our children know what happens in America,'' he said.

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America is feared, envied, loathed and admired -- but seldom ignored. Complaining about the United States is a global pastime, among both friends and foes.

It can even be argued that anti-American rhetoric actually affirms America's hallowed freedom of speech. After all, isn't tolerance of dissent one of the hallmarks of democracy?

Yet the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dumped an ominous weight onto the usual clamor of America-bashing.

Since the end of the Cold War, with no other superpower to challenge it, the United States had seemed an immutable force. Whether people liked it or despised it, they had little thought of changing it.

The terrorist attacks caused a shift of thinking for Anthony Mwenda, 26, a former waiter now between jobs in Nairobi, Kenya.

He has never been to America -- nor any farther than neighboring Tanzania, in fact -- but he has many opinions about the world's richest nation. America is ruthless, self-serving, shortsighted and arrogant, yet still ''one of the best places to grow up and live in,'' he said.

One adjective that never occurred to him, until recently, was ''vulnerable.''

''For most of us in Kenya, watching American soaps and movies gave us a sense of them being invincible,'' Mwenda said. ''But now most people realize those are just movies, and that America is not as strong as they want us to think.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Diana Elias in Kuwait City, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Eric Munene in Nairobi, Rodrique Ngowi in Kigali, Jasbant Singh in Kuala Lumpur, and Afshin Valinejad in Tehran, and Jae-suk Yoo in Seoul.



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