Winning Over the Muslim Mind

March 1, 2004 Topic: Society Regions: LevantNorthern AfricaPersian GulfMiddle East

Winning Over the Muslim Mind

Mini Teaser: J-Lo won't do it; Moderate imams may.

by Author(s): Derk Kinnane Roelofsma

Facts are stubborn things. And the facts, sad but stubborn, are that hatred of the United States in the Arab and Muslim world is greater today than ever before; that it shows no sign of diminishing; and that Washington's efforts to counter it have had little success.

Its most visible (and audible) efforts have been the public diplomacy of radio and television stations. None are winning hearts and minds to any great extent. Al-Iraqiya, the television station the Pentagon ran in Baghdad, was supposed to entice Iraqis away from the popular Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya--both of which are sympathetic to Islamic extremism. But an Iraqi media specialist was quoted in the Washington Post on January 8, 2004, describing it as technically backward, unconvincing in its message, and unable to compete with other stations.

A new American effort is Al-Hurra, meaning "The Free One", a satellite television station being set up in Springfield, Virginia, that will beam news and entertainment in Arabic to the countries reached by Al-Jazeera. Al-Hurra boasts that it is committed to being fair and balanced in what it broadcasts. Its staff of 200 is also to be largely Arab.

Al-Hurra, the biggest government-financed media venture since the Voice of America was set up in 1942, is not alone in targeting the Middle East. The United States already has two radio stations, Radio Farda ("Radio Tomorrow"), which broadcasts in Persian, and the Arabic-language Radio Sawa ("Radio Together"). Both carry news and a mix of Western and Middle Eastern pop music directed at an audience of young Iranians and Arabs.

Yet these various stations have little influence on either governments or the "Arab Street." Why? Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network (a body that supports the Palestinian cause.) In August 2002, shortly after Radio Sawa began broadcasting, he presented a comparison on the website Electronic Intifada of bulletins put out the same day by the BBC and Sawa:

"In the evening the BBC and Sawa both reported on the visit to the region of the un Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs, Catherine Pertini. While the BBC quoted Pertini as expressing deep concern about the grave situation, Sawa quoted her only as describing announced Israeli measures to relieve the plight of the besieged population as encouraging. The BBC highlighted a new report from the World Bank that put the number of Palestinians living in extreme poverty at over 50 percent. Sawa said nothing about that but repeatedly included an upbeat item about a planned meeting between Israel's defense minister and the new Palestinian interior minister."

It is not difficult to guess which news service Arabs find more credible.

That is not to deny that Sawa has won success of a kind. It has developed an audience of 15 million in the region. But Salameh Nematt, Al-Hayat's current Washington bureau chief, puts down Sawa's appeal to what he calls cultural schizophrenia, an appetite for American pop culture that is not infrequently coupled with rejection of U.S. policies in the Middle East.

"People think highly of America in the sense that it's superior when it comes to everything they enjoy", he said. "Everyone likes Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, but they hate George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice." Hansjoerg Biener, a German specialist in international broadcasting, points out similarly that listeners in Jordan in the 1990s tuned into the Israeli station, Kol Israel, because they liked its program formats even though they disliked its views. So, despite the 15 million who like its pop music, there is little reason to think that Radio Sawa achieves what it was set up to do: influence Arabs to view the United States in a better light.

Senior U.S. officials are not unaware of these difficulties. Last October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented to journalists on the failure of public diplomacy directed at the Muslim world. Ideas, he noted, need to be marshaled and communicated in ways that are persuasive to the listeners. "In many instances, we're not the best messengers", he admitted.

Recognition of this prompted Congress to tell the State Department to come up with proposals to remedy the failures. Last October, a team brought together by the State Department issued a report advocating a new strategic direction in U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world. It was to be implemented by a reorganization of interagency activities, better use of the Internet, more support for the teaching of English, more staff with better knowledge of Arabic and other regional languages as well as of Muslim societies, and, yes, a big increase in funding. Yet even if these recommendations are implemented, they too will probably not have the desired effect. The reactions of Arab commentators to the report explain why.

Ali Fayad runs a Beirut-based think-tank dealing with relations between the Islamic world and the West. He found an assumption throughout the report that the problem is diplomatic rather than political. The report fails to acknowledge the fact that U.S. policies are the primary reason for Arab discontent. Abd al-Mahdi Abdallah, a Jordanian expert on Arab politics, has gone into more detail. At the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, he listed a number of things that foster Arab anti-Americanism: military intervention and sanctions against Arab countries; U.S. military bases in the Arab world; support for authoritarian Arab regimes; policies seen as hostile to Islam and to Arab and Muslim U.S. citizens; American hypocrisy on democracy and human rights in the Arab world; above all, U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians.

Even when Washington seems to respond to these criticisms, it carries little conviction. Though President Bush has pledged that America would no longer support dictatorships in the Middle East, no one supposes that the United States will withdraw support for, say, Saudi Arabia or Egypt (let alone democratic Israel) any time soon. After all, there is a consensus in the American political class that such policies are in the national interest. Yet another stubborn fact is that Arabs and Muslims are unlikely to pay attention to American public diplomacy until the United States takes a much more critical attitude both to autocratic Arab regimes and to Israel.

Indeed, anti-Americanism may be too deeply rooted in the Arab world to be seriously, or at least quickly, altered--even by changes in official U.S. policy. After all, current anti-Americanism in the Arab world dates back to the 1950s and was originally promoted by "progressive" secularists rather than by Islamists. As Reuven Paz wrote in the December 2003 issue of the Middle East Review of International Affairs:

"The roots of Islamist anti-Americanism were deep long before the rise of the Jihadist movement in the 1990s, or the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. They were developed by the anti-American atmosphere of secular Arab regimes, such as the Nasserist and Ba'thist ones, and encouraged by their alliance with the Soviet Union. . . . Secular Arab anti-Americanism was mainly political, and not part of a cultural worldview. But, it heavily contributed to the development of Islamist anti-Americanism, by contributing one very important element: the sense of a global Western conspiracy against . . . the Arab and Muslim world."

In fact, Arab anti-Americanism, whether among pious Muslims or secularists, has a common root in a sense of powerlessness and humiliation. The source of this affliction is not merely what foreigners have done to the Arabs. Hence, it is not public diplomacy alone that is going to change these relations. Change will have to come from within Arab society and the Muslim world.

Religion as the Problem

Yet there is a way that Americans and others can help counter the Islamists who are waging war on the status quo in their own countries as well as on the West. In order to discover it, however, one must first understand that the source of identity among many Arabs has become a religious one. Kanan Makiya, an outstanding Iraqi chronicler of his country's misfortunes under Saddam Hussein, points out that since the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, anti-Americanism changed hands from secular nationalists to Muslim religious fanatics.

It is a transition that the crafty Saddam latched onto when he added the Islamic invocation, "There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet", to the Iraqi flag, halted the sale of Scotch (the Iraqis' preferred tipple in nightclubs), and built a huge mosque with minarets shaped like Scud missiles. In Iraq today, the insurgents of the Sunni Triangle claim to be protecting not Ba'athi socialism but Islam. In Central Asia and Southeast Asia, terrorism and insurgency are justified in the name of an Islamic identity that transcends national borders. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan may have begun by seeking to overthrow that country's repressive, corrupt and inefficient government, but it now aims at the establishment of a caliphate throughout Central Asia. Hence it has joined with Muslim Uighur separatists from China's northwest in an Islamic Movement of Central Asia. In Southeast Asia, supporters of Jamaah Islamiya--responsible for the 2002 bombing of a Western tourist resort on Bali that killed 202 people--finds supporters in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Essay Types: Essay