How to Win Islam's Hearts and Minds
By Sam Jaffe
As bombs fall on Afghanistan and the FBI races to round up terrorists in the U.S., another war is being waged on video feeds and in cyberspace. It's the battle for public opinion in the Muslim world. This is one front where the fight can't be lost. Yet, sadly, the U.S. doesn't seem to be winning. It's time for America to bring its case forcefully to the streets of the Arab world -- the court of Islamic public opinion.
The September 11 attacks, killing more than 5,000 people, have left the Western world in a state of shock. Yet they have left most Islamic nations, even those friendly to the U.S., only mildly perturbed. The overwhelming sense in the Middle East seems to be: It was a pity that so many people died, but that's what happens when you give aid and comfort to Israel.
Rather than sending planes and commandos to Afghanistan to fight alongside their American allies, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have spent most of their time criticizing the American response. In Pakistan, anti-American sentiment is on the rise. And Osama bin Laden's rhetoric about ridding Islamic holy lands of U.S. troops is the same rhetoric being used by many Muslim Imans.
First, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and now Secretary of State Colin Powell have visited the region to make the case at the diplomatic level for U.S. military action. They have tried to communicate how deeply the terrorist attacks have changed the Western view of the world. Now should come Phase Two: Making the same case to the average Arab man and woman.
Make no mistake: From Iran to Jordan, from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, the governments of the Islamic world respond to public opinion and tailor their policies accordingly, even if it hurts their countries' interests on the international stage. As perverse as it might sound, the creation of Israel in 1948 was a gift to many Muslim governments. By cultivating their people's anger toward the Jews, most of these governments deflected attention from their own repression and lack of freedom.
Now, that hatred of the Jews has been superimposed on a much larger entity, the U.S. And once again, it's in the best interest of the region's rulers -- including erstwhile allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait -- to nurture that anger through the state-owned press and state-sponsored mosques.
THORN IN THEIR SIDE.
That's why it's imperative for the U.S. government to take the propaganda battle directly to everyday Muslims, who are just as open-minded and able to respond to a good argument as the next man and woman. People in Pakistan are no more prone to fear, hysteria, and hatred than are their counterparts in the U.S.
Luckily, the Bush Administration has a method for reaching that person in the street. The medium is Al Jazeera -- the first censorship-free television news outlet in the Arab world. Based in Qatar, it has become a thorn in the side of every Muslim regime, from Muamar Gaddafi of Libya to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. It has also become a soapbox for Osama bin Laden, whose organization uses it to distribute its videos.
Until the night of Oct. 15, U.S. policy toward Al Jazeera has been to ignore it. Then Condoleeza Rice appeared on the network, granting it an exclusive interview. Most of the questions were about America's policy toward Israel. While the tone of the interview was confrontational, she handled the questions deftly and with composure.
A BRAKE ON ISRAEL.
If anything, the Administration should embrace such opportunities to talk directly to the Arabic-speaking public. The Administration should make Rice's visit to Al Jazeera the first of many. Powell should deliver a videotape to the network's Washington bureau, directly address viewers, and explain why the U.S. is bombing Afghanistan. He should also detail our goals in this war on terrorism.
Not stopping there, Powell also should point out that while the U.S. supports Israel, it also supports Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and that no American Administration has ever supported Israel's most unpopular moves -- including the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and the creation of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
He should also note that, in the first nine months of the Bush Administration, the U.S. neglected its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and that it has been the Palestinians, not Israel, who suffered. In fact, he should point out that the U.S. is the only power on earth that can convince Israel to allow a Palestinian state. The moment the U.S. abandons Israel is the moment the Administration loses that leverage.
Next, the President himself should take the stage through Al Jazeera. He ought to deliver weekly talks to Moslem viewers, explaining America's goals. Why not have him take calls from viewers. It could be a key part of winning this war.
The war of public opinion shouldn't stop there. Next, President Bush should tour the Muslim world. But rather than consorting with the region's rulers, he should meet only with Islamic scholars. He should lay out America's hopes and visions for what a future relationship between his country and the Islamic world would look like.
And he should patiently listen to what his audience has to say in return. It's these theologians and jurists, Islamic thinkers such as Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi of Egypt and Yusuf Qaradawi in Qatar, that will defeat bin Laden's true goal: the creation of a terroristic, pan-Islamic state throughout the Moslem world with him as its caliph.
President Bush has done a good job communicating with the American public. But to win the war on terrorism, he needs to do a better job of connecting with a worldwide audience, including people who have different priorities and perceptions. And he has to do so quickly, before their opinions are cemented.
Jaffe is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York
Edited by Patricia O'Connell
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