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'Public Diplomacy' In
The Islamic World: America's Propaganda Offensive

By Yoginder Sikand

15 March, 2004

America's support for dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world, its blatant support to Israel in its war against the Palestinians, its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and American imperialism more generally-all these and more have contributed to widespread anti-American feelings among many Muslims, as well as others opposed to Pax Americana. The matter has been only further complicated by the shrill rhetoric of radical Islamist groups who believe that America as engaged in a global war against Islam. America has never suffered such an acute image problem in the Muslim world before, and the problem keeps mounting by the day as Bush pursues his global 'war on terror', seen by many Muslims, whether rightly or wrongly, as directed specifically at the Islamic world.

American officials are, of course, aware of the mounting anti-American feelings among many Muslims. However, rather than making any significant changes in American policies that have led to widespread anti-Americanism in the first place, influential American policy makers are only making the problem more acute by their fundamentally flawed diagnosis of the phenomenon and the solutions that they offer. As many of them see it, 'terrorism' in the Muslim world emerges from a certain interpretation of Islam that constructs the world in a frighteningly Manichean way, with Muslims being pitted against all others in a war for global supremacy. Interestingly, this diagnosis of the problem is an exact replica of the model of the world that radical Islamists uphold. Hence, the solution to the problem, many American policy makers argue, is to forcibly counter militant Islamist groups, while at the same time launch a war for the hearts and minds of Muslim peoples in order to convince them of America's supposed noble intentions.

This understanding of the causes of anti-Americanism and Islamist militancy completely, perhaps deliberately, glosses over the fundamental causes of widespread animosity against America not only in many Muslim countries but in large parts of the global South. It remains silent on the complex web of economic and political factors and to the whole issue of American imperialism that has promoted radical Islamism as a discourse of dissent. It also ignores the role of America itself in propping up and supporting radical Islamists for its own ends, such as in the Arab world to counter nationalist, democratic and leftist forces as well as in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviets. It thus denies the need for a fundamental change in American policies in order to combat 'terrorism'. This flawed understanding of the problem obviously leads to the suggesting of flawed solutions. Instead of calling for a radical rethinking of American policies vis-à-vis the Muslim world, it is argued that 'terrorism' must be countered by military means, supplemented by a propaganda campaign to promote 'American values' and to convince Muslims that America is not anti-Islam as such.

This approach to the question of America's relations with the Muslim world underlies major American initiatives that have been taken after the events of 11 September, 2001. Leading American policy makers are now stressing the urgency of what they call 'public diplomacy' with the Muslim world as part of America's global so-called 'war on terror'. A working definition of 'public diplomacy' suggested by the Planning Group for the Integration of the United States Information Agency describes it on the basis of the fundamental purpose that it is intended to serve. It defines it thus: 'Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences'. In contrast to conventional forms of diplomacy that focus only on dialogue between governments, the 'public diplomacy' that American policy makers now seek to pursue in the Muslim world aims at communicating with non-state civil society actors, such as NGOs, the media and the general public. The underlying purpose is to influence influential non-state actors who can then play a vital role in protecting American interests and in countering anti-American elements and sentiments in their own societies.

In other words, 'public diplomacy' is regarded as a crucial propaganda weapon to pursue American 'national interests'. Recognising the growing wave of anti-Americanism among many Muslims today, American policy makers are now advocating what they see as the urgent need for America to reach out to Muslim publics, rather than simply rulers of Muslim states, to win their support and thereby counter radical anti-American, including Islamist, groups. This new approach is well exemplified in a recently issued report of the Brookings Institute, a major think-tank closely associated with the American administration. The report, titled 'The Need to Communicate: How to Improve U.S. Public Diplomacy With the Islamic World', and authored by a certain Hady Amr, suggests major policy initiatives to counter anti-Americanism among Muslim communities.

The report sees 'public diplomacy' as based on the understanding that 'the U.S. government can and should attempt to shape the political environment in which it and other governments operate'. For this purpose, it suggests that the US government should reach out to key civil society groups and sectors in the Muslim world in order to 'build support'. This is seen as particularly crucial since non-state actors 'have an ability to influence our national security and prosperity directly either as allies or adversaries'. The report recognises that 'public diplomacy' to win Muslim civil society support is alone not enough. It insists that what it calls 'psychological operations' that are aimed at influencing 'foreign attitudes and behaviour for military advantage' are 'valuable policy tools' but adds that they are not a substitute for a 'proper diplomacy apparatus' to promote America's 'national interests'. It thus urges the US government to integrate 'public diplomacy' into its 'foreign and military policy apparatus', while at the same time carefully steering clear of an explicit critique of existing American foreign and military policies.

'Public diplomacy', or, in other words, propaganda war to influence foreign civil society actors, is regarded as particularly crucial when what are held to be America's 'national interests' are seen abroad as inimical to local interests, as is the case with America's policies in large parts of the Muslim world. The Brookings Institute report argues that 'public diplomacy' is the 'primary tool' through which the US can harness what it calls 'soft power', which it defines as 'the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals'. It is also 'the most efficient means of power', 'as it doesn't require the use of force or huge financial payoffs to achieve or sustain one's policy goals'. In the context of America's relations with the Muslim world, 'public diplomacy', as the report sees it, is vital to America's 'uphill battle today for the hearts and minds of the citizens of Muslim-majority countries'. Put in simple language, 'public diplomacy' appears as little else than a propaganda campaign carefully designed to promote American 'national interests' by winning over civil society opponents or potential opponents through various means.

Apparently, in the wake of the events of 11 September, 2001, the US government has been seeking to use 'public diplomacy' in the Muslim world in a major way. The Department of State's overall 'public diplomacy' budget rose by 9 per cent after the attacks to 594 million dollars. Funding for regions with large Muslim populations rose considerably. The budget for South Asia increased by 63 per cent and for the Middle East by 58 per cent. A major initiative in this regard was taken in October 2001, when Madison Avenue superstar Charlotte Beers was hired as the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to launch a communications campaign aimed particularly at Muslims. It was designed in order to 'establish a mindset that Americans and Muslims share many values and beliefs' and to 'demonstrate that America is not at war with Islam'. As part of the campaign several television commercials and magazines were produced to send out this message, and speaking tours were organised in order to address issues of 'shared values'. The campaign arranged for the production of several 'mini-documentaries' in Arabic, English, French, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and Urdu that were broadcast to various Muslim countries. These dealt with 'shared' values as well as the lives of American Muslims. A major aspect of the campaign was the production a propaganda film titled 'Muslim Life in America', purporting to show the prosperity of American Muslims in order to convey the impression to viewers that America was not at war with Islam. The film was shown in a number of Muslim countries, but apparently, while several viewers came to the conclusion after seeing the film that Muslims in America enjoyed freedom of religion, it met with stiff opposition in many places from Muslims who saw it as simply a propaganda tool. Television stations in several Muslim countries simply refused to broadcast the American 'mini-documentaries', particularly since their release coincided with the run up to the US invasion of Iraq.

In late 2002, America launched yet another major 'public diplomacy' venture, with the American Secretary of State Colin Powell announcing the setting up of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The avowed objective of the MEPI was to help people in the Middle East 'bridge the job gap .the freedom gap.[and] the knowledge gap'. The four major pillars of the project were educational reform, political reform, economic reform and women's empowerment. That these lofty-sounding goals were hardly seriously meant is evident from the fact that the budget allocated for the programme in 2003 was a miniscule 29 million dollars, the equivalent of what the Department of Defence spends every forty minutes.

Dazzling the youth in impoverished Muslim and other countries with the glitter and glamour of America has been one of the major thrusts of American 'public diplomacy' for years now. The events of 11 September 2001 have occasioned major developments in this regard, and America has come up with new ventures that appear to be carefully designed in order to attract disgruntled Muslim youth, whom it probably recognises as both easy fodder for radical Islamists as well as possible supporters of America and 'American values'. One such venture is the launching in 2002 of the Arabic language 'Radio Sawa', which is a service of US International Broadcasting that is operated and funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US government agency. 'Radio Sawa' can be heard on FM stations in several cities in the Arabic-speaking world. It is said to be immensely popular among Arab youth, particularly for its mix of Arab and Western music, the absence of commercials and its short news spots (no doubt carefully designed to promote the American establishment's view) twice every hour. A report on the functioning of the radio station revealed that listeners 'are more likely to have more favourable attitudes towards the United States'. Emboldened by the success of 'Radio Sawa', the Americans have recently launched a second radio station, 'Radio Farda'-a 24-hour news and entertainment channel aimed at listeners under the age of 30. Another new propaganda tool of the US government is the new Arabic 'Hi' monthly magazine that was launched in the summer of 2003. The glossy 72-page magazine focuses on Arab-American life and is now being sold throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Another similar effort is the website started recently by the US Department of State in cooperation with a little-known organisation calling itself the 'Council of American Muslims for Understanding'. The website is available in English, Arabic, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, French and Urdu in order to reach as many Muslims as possible.

The Brookings Institute report makes a broad survey of these and other various 'public diplomacy' efforts that the US has been making since 11 September, 2001, but sees them as somehow limited and not effective enough. It argues for the US government to make 'public diplomacy' an integral part of US foreign policy in order to promote American interests in the Muslim world. It suggests various new methods for the US government to adopt in this regard. It points to Muslim youth as a particular target audience, arguing that 'youthfulness' is 'highly correlated with more positive attitudes towards America'. Accordingly, it appeals for American 'public diplomacy' initiatives to seriously engage with young Muslims. Apparently, the US is already doing this in a major way, with young Muslims from various countries being now invited to the US on various exchange programmes at American government expense. The report also suggests that the US government should work closely with NGOs working in Muslim countries, particularly those that enjoy popular local support. This is said to be vital for building a more positive image of America among Muslims, for, as the report argues, the 'US seeks to be seen as doing good work for the public benefit in the Islamic world'. However, the report cautions that in cooperating with selected NGOs to 'find joint priorities' care must be taken to ensure that the NGOs 'are not seen to be doing the bidding of the US Government but instead that the US Government is seen to have found common ground with the NGOs'. The report also suggests that USAID programmes (which critics have pointed out are simply a means to promote American interests in poverty-stricken countries) be further promoted in the Muslim world, and that these should be coordinated more closely with the Office of the Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and with public affairs officers in US embassies.

The report sees the Internet as another important for American 'public diplomacy'. It argues that 'individuals with some form of Internet access' have 'overwhelmingly more positive views of America' and that they 'tend to hold views that share more commonalities with America'. Further, it says, Internet access 'is likely to increase openness to American values and ideas'. Hence, it appeals for the US to help expand Internet access throughout the Muslim world. Presumably, access to the Internet would enable material that America wants Muslims to read to reach out to a wide audience. Behind the lofty rhetoric, some may well argue, this is probably designed simply to promote American consumerist culture that would sedulously entice young Muslims (and others) to embrace what are held to be 'American values'. The report also recommends the setting up of 'American Corners', or information outlets that are housed in local libraries and shopping centres in order to be more easily accessible to the general public than the heavily guarded American Cultural Centres. They would provide information to the public on various issues related to America. The report presents them as harmless information centres, but they would probably function simply as propaganda centres to provide the American point of view on various contentious issues. Yet another means to pursue 'public diplomacy' in the Muslim world, the report suggests, is to promote lecture tours by American academics to Muslim countries to address local audiences in order to 'explain US society and policy'.

As the Brookings Institute report clearly suggests, American policy makers are well aware of the widespread and growing anti-American sentiments in much of the world today, including among many Muslims. However, there appears to be little, if any, willingness to address the real causes of anti-Americanism and Islamist extremism that are rooted in America's imperialist project and its hegemonic designs. Like the radical Islamists whom they see themselves pitted against, they seem to refuse to recognise the need for genuine dialogue, introspection and, above all, self-criticism, and seem in no way ready to compromise on what they call America's 'national interests', even at the cost of thousands of innocent lives in other countries. At the same time as American leaders continue to mouth pious professions of sincerity and charity towards the Muslim world, America continues to brazenly violate the freedoms of Muslim (and other) peoples, as is so brutally evident in the case of its invasion of Iraq. In the absence of any meaningful and fundamental changes in American foreign policy, the much-touted American 'public diplomacy' exercise in the Muslim world will continue to resonate as hypocritical, insincere propaganda to many Muslims as well as to others concerned about the twin menaces of American imperialism and Islamist radicalism.

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