A complicated brew of misunderstandings and fabrications regarding Muslims and Islam is congealing in the collective American psyche into one simple statement: They hate us for our freedom, our values, our way of life.
It's catchy, it's black and white -- and it's an anathema to millions of Muslims here in America and around the world.
"It's a red herring," says social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, founder of Public Agenda, a public opinion research organization. "The quarrel with us is mainly political and not that they hate us or our values.
"And if you frame the issue as one of hatred, it is effectively a council of despair -- you have set a certain course of action," Yankelovich adds of the ongoing war on terror.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Muslims have tried to fight the destructive description in their mosques, their communities and the media -- largely to no avail.
When it comes to solutions, few have answers. Few, that is, aside from Ohio-based Arab American comedian Sherif Hedayat. "America needs to stop airing shows that make us Middle Easterners look bad -- shows like the news," he quips.
All jokes aside, the man has a point. There are a billion Muslims on this planet who want nothing to do with militancy or terrorism. And while people around the world appear to be able to differentiate between those with power who promote violence and those who are their victims, Americans are failing to do the same.
In Jordan, a country where 78 percent of Arabs expressed an unfavorable opinion of the United States overall in an opinion poll conducted by Zogby International last summer, 83 percent said they admire American science and technology and over 50 percent had a favorable view of American democracy.
In Egypt, a longtime ally of the United States, 98 percent of respondents in the poll had an unfavorable view of the United States overall, numbers that dropped significantly when Egyptians were asked about American culture and her people.
Nor are harsh feelings toward American policies the sole property of the Muslim world. France's and Russia's open opposition to Bush administration plans to invade Iraq tops a long list of obvious examples.
Positive opinions of the United States are falling from Japan to Mexico. In Great Britain only 45 percent of people hold a favorable view of America, but 62 percent view the American people favorably. In Australia, although only 54 percent hold positive impressions of the United States, 72 percent still view American people positively.
As a result, Americans who travel abroad this summer shouldn't be surprised to encounter vocal expressions of frustration from people in the countries they visit. Whether on a taxi ride to the Bangkok airport, attempting to procure a visa to Slovenia, or visiting Big Ben in London, Americans will find that few people outside the United States have a high opinion of the way the Bush administration is handling foreign policy in general and the war on terror in particular.
Does that mean, then, that all these people hate us?
Every relationship -- husband and wife, mother and daughter, country and country -- has its ups, downs, and down-n-dirty brawls. But just because there is a fight or disagreement doesn't mean positive feelings toward the relationship suddenly disappear or that working through it to get to a better place ceases to be the common goal.
Perhaps nowhere is defining the parameters of a relationship harder than in a world made increasingly small by the unstoppable march of the Internet and globalization, and common threats like global warming and terrorism.
That one government has the power to affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world naturally means that people the world around feel they have plenty at stake inside American policy. Yet the majority of those affected have no real recourse -- they can't vote in U.S. elections, they can't call or write their congressperson, and they certainly can't pick up a phone and dial the White House.
In practical terms, the means to express their displeasure and frustration fall into three categories: pressure applied to their own governments to reject certain U.S. policies, opinion polls, and virtually yodeling their list of grievances at any passing American.
"Certainly, there is a lot of anger out there directed at America, but it is not a major reaction against Western values or the American people but rather reaction to substantive grievances that remain unaddressed," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based public policy research foundation.
"Plainly put," Carpenter adds, "it is not imprinted in the Muslim DNA to hate Western culture or people."
Indeed, when you actually listen to what people are saying -- which can be tricky, especially when it's in a language you don't understand, at the decibel level of a rock concert, and accompanied by all sorts of strange, dramatic hand gestures -- what you hear are desperate cries for freedom, justice and the respect of individual rights.
"The major gripe, from the world's perspective but especially in the Muslim and Third worlds, is that rather than being the bearers of justice, America is always on the side of injustice," says Yankelovich. "There are real issues out there, and they see American policy as being part of the problem, not the solution."
For the Muslim world, public enemy No. 1 isn't terrorists nestling in an Afghan cave plotting the destruction of the American empire, but politicians sitting in seats of power across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
"As far as the Muslim world is concerned, anger is not only a matter of what the U.S. does but what the indigenous population needs," says Turkish professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul's Bilgi University.
"When regimes run into trouble, they explain away their own failures by blaming outside actors -- and the U.S. and Bush are prime targets for that," Turan explains. "And for those who don't buy the excuse-making, when these regimes curtail individual rights and freedoms with impunity and America does nothing, it reinforces the belief that America supports authoritarian regimes."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a prime current example. Egypt emerged as the West's Middle Eastern darling after becoming the first country in the region to risk its neighbors' ire by signing a peace agreement with Israel at Camp David. The accord cost Anwar Sadat his life and gave his successor, Hosni Mubarak, a treasure chest overflowing with political capital in Washington.
For 24 years, Mubarak's rule has been characterized by states of emergency, the jailing of opposition figures, secretive military courts, widespread torture among security forces, and tight control of the media.
And for 24 years, successive American administrations have done little to censure Egyptian leadership. In fact, Egypt is one of the largest recipients of American money, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1979 and an average of $815 million in annual economic assistance, all used by Mubarak to help maintain the status quo.
Even Mubarak's recent surprise decision to hold secret-ballot, multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time in Egypt's history has rung hollow. With elections scheduled for October, and an opposition reeling from decades of oppression, Mubarak is widely expected to win a fifth term.
"This isn't real change," insists Michael Provence, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of San Diego. "This is Mubarak attempting to stay on the right side of his American paymasters."
Nor is Mubarak's heavy-handedness an anomaly. Over 147 million Pakistanis, 18 million Saudis and millions more around the globe are living under oppressive regimes that are patrons of Washington.
And, of course, in terms of collective perception, the Arab-Israeli conflict drives negative feelings toward American policy like Jeff Gordon drives a race car.
As deep as these wounds cut, there are overarching issues that anger not only the Muslim world but our friends and allies around the globe.
"Some of the dislike comes from the U.S. being too big and too powerful, and honestly, there isn't much that can be done about that," says Turan, the Turkish professor. "But that dislike invariably is intensified by Bush's pronounced policy shift away from consensus to unilateralism, the manifestation of arrogance he projects to the world."
"The feeling is that America now refuses to take the world's concerns seriously, and in the minds of many that is abuse of power," says Turan.
The funny thing is, that while the administration may appear unresponsive, the American people seem just as concerned as people in the rest of the world.
In a January poll conducted by Gallup of American public opinion, 59 percent of respondents indicated they would not support the use of torture of known terrorists even if they had detailed knowledge of upcoming attacks. In the same poll, an average of 77 percent qualified chaining prisoners naked, threatening prisoners with dogs, and having female interrogators make contact with Muslim men during religious observances as wrong.
"People are people, and everybody loves freedom," says Provence. "Maybe as individuals we have different opinions as to what that means, but the desire is everywhere."
Whether we like it or not, virtually all observers agree, the world's growing anger -- spot-on or misplaced, depending on your political persuasion -- needs to be addressed. Our success in the War on Terror and in the world in general depends on it.
But like any relationship that has hit a difficult, emotionally charged phase, a box of chocolates and a hug just aren't going to fix the problems.
"A turn away from unilateralism back to engaging more internationally with institutions and allies to build consensus would certainly help," says Turan.
Says Yankelovich: "Systemic distortions of the issues and people on both sides is counter-productive."
"You cannot prevail over the problems with military means," Yankelovich explained. "The administration is trying to readjust its strategy, but in trying to promote democracy, they haven't shifted the line away from destructive characterizations. We need to address the absence of dialogue, especially between civic and religious communities."
Much as a child hates to admit that a parent actually did know what they were talking about, it's like my mother always said: Communication is the bedrock of any relationship.