Center for American Progress

Our Relationship With the Islamic World: Why It’s Broken and How We Can Fix It

Our Relationship With the Islamic World: Why It’s Broken and How We Can Fix It




Amid growing problems in Iraq and between Israelis and Palestinians, the United States, on February 14, launched its much touted Arabic language satellite television station. "Alhurra" (meaning "the free one") will beam American messages in Arabic and Farsi across the Islamic World. President Bush has extolled the channel as a means to cut through the "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world" and tell people "the truth about the values and the policies of the United States."

At $62 million a year, the project is certainly not cheap. And with America’s public image in a free fall (for example, U.S. favorability ratings have gone from 61 percent to 15 percent in Indonesia and from 25 percent to 11 percent in Jordan over the past two years), clearly anything is better than the current failed U.S. public diplomacy. But those who think that a "fair and balanced" response to Al Jazeera will reverse the plummet in America’s favorability ratings or, more importantly, actually resolve the serious policy challenges that the U.S. faces are kidding themselves.

The problem is two-fold: one, how we formulate our policy, and two, how we communicate our policy.

First and foremost, the problem is U.S. policy. No amount of communication programs can change how citizens across the vast Islamic world feel about the U.S. without core shifts in U.S. policy. What are citizens from across the Islamic world angry about when it comes to the U.S.?: From the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, to U.S. disengagement towards Israel and Palestine, to backing down on claims that the U.S. would push for democracy across the region, there are many reasons to point to. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, this administration has managed to squander global support for America.

Now, vast majorities of the populations of countries in the region—70 percent in Indonesia, 80 percent in Jordan and 81 percent in Lebanon—say they feel that the U.S. "does not take their interests into account." But this was not always the case. A century ago America was seen as a positive and benevolent light in the region, as Americans played a key role in establishing the leading learning institutions across the Middle East. And as recently as 2000, the United States was much more respected in the region because we were more constructively engaged. The policies of the Bush administration, particularly after 9/11, have driven changes in sentiments across the Islamic world.

The second problem is the way America communicates. Adding yet another state owned media outlet to the region answer neither America’s needs nor those of the region. In fact, changes in technology mean that in just about every Muslim country, the citizenry already has access to broadcasts from America and around the globe. Even in Syria, local falafel vendors could be seen during the recent war in Iraq switching from CNN to Al Jazeera, and even to Fox News, trying to get a read on what was really going on.

Specific steps that can make the difference

The United States faces more than just a lost popularity contest or some imagined information gap. Instead what is needed is a fresh approach to public diplomacy where cornerstone activities are launched in partnership and re-anchored in a new paradigm of "jointness." American public diplomacy will be most effective and persuasive when it is rooted in a dialogue between American and foreign civil society, planned with inputs from both sides, and conducted in a manner that benefits all sides.

In more practical terms, the first step of this process is the joint identification of mutual interests and concerns through dialogue between civil society and government leaders in Muslim-majority countries and the United States.

The second step in this process is joint planning and implementation. It is important to contrast this with concepts developed essentially by Americans and then implemented with the help of citizens, groups, or governments from Muslim-majority countries.

Such a strategy—change on both the policy and the communication front—must keep in mind the following lessons (listed in approximate order of priority):

  • Our policy direction must change. We must center our policies on good governance and democracy. These are values that citizens of Muslim countries admire about the United States and want to see take root in their countries. The president’s many speeches on democracy must finally translate into real, substantial programming in the new budget. Furthermore, we must hand over the security apparatus in Iraq to international leadership, and vigorously engage Israelis and Palestinians—as the Clinton administration did—to push for positive change.
  • Effective public diplomacy requires deeper coordination. Foreign policy and public diplomacy must work hand in hand. The Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the National Security Council must cooperate closely.
  • There is no "one size fits all" agenda. Muslim-majority countries are exceptionally heterogeneous in terms of wealth, culture, religious composition, media access, and attitudes. Regional programs should be developed to meet strategic needs, but deployed tactically on a country by country basis.
  • Youth represent an opportunity. The rapidly growing cohort of youth in Muslim-majority countries should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Polls show that youth are more likely to have an affinity for American values, especially when they have Internet access. Technological connectivity, which familiarizes them with American culture and policy, presents an opportunity for expansion.
  • Leverage the strength of our diversity. In a time when America lacks both credibility and local language speakers to represent our views abroad, the distance between our government and the Arab- and Muslim-American communities at home is stunning. The State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense Departments should all examine how they can better tap the strengths of these communities, both to improve programming and recruit individuals who can better relate to and communicate with Arab and Muslim populations overseas.
  • Emphasize values-based policy. Good governance and democracy are values that citizens of Muslim countries admire about the United States and want to see take root in their countries. Aid and development policy should promote these values. Furthermore, U.S. public diplomacy efforts have great room for improvement in both existing programs and fostering new innovative programming. The United States should undertake the following initiatives (listed in approximate order of priority) with the philosophy of jointness, where appropriate:
  • Create easy-access U.S. public information centers. Since the late 1990s, growing security concerns have put overseas U.S. information centers increasingly behind increased security barriers in a fortress-like situation that make them unpleasant for local citizens to reach and unlikely to be used. Accessible information centers like the American Corners program, which puts smaller versions of U.S. libraries stocked with technology-based information and books into high-traffic areas should be launched.
  • Expand exchange programs. Exchange programs such as the Fulbright and Humphrey programs should be strengthened and expanded, and should reflect growing U.S. geopolitical needs, in particular towards improving relations with the Islamic world. Furthermore, consideration needs to be given to the fact that new visa restrictions make it difficult to bring visitors from the Islamic world into the United States at all, at a time when we need these cultural exchanges more than ever.
  • Expand the use of polling. We should utilize polling and focus groups in Muslim-majority countries to better inform U.S. policy-makers and measure the success of public diplomacy efforts. Because another important ingredient affecting how people of the Islamic world feel about America is our own feelings about them, it is important to keep measuring American attitudes about the Islamic world and even design programs to change negative attitudes.
  • Make public diplomacy a crosscutting theme for all Foreign Service officers. Every American diplomat must play a part in public diplomacy, so as to maximize efforts to reach directly into civil society. Thus, public diplomacy and foreign language training for diplomats should be strengthened. And those diplomats who know the Islamic world—particularly those who speak the local languages—should continue to be assigned to the Islamic world and not rotated beyond its borders.
  • Build closer alliances with NGOs. Local and national NGOs and international institutions receive strong positive ratings across the Islamic world. To be successful, however, the independence of these NGOs in particular needs to be real and visible, and we must protect them from government crackdowns, even when a government is our putative ally. Our close association with such groups will demonstrate that we support the progress that local players on the ground are working towards already. For example, supporting local press freedom would do far more good than giving another channel on the remote control.
  • Leverage the expertise of Capitol Hill and state and local leaders. Civil society in Muslim-majority countries craves dialogue with American policy makers. Members of Congress, their staffers, and state and local officials are ideally suited to engage in this kind of public diplomacy. Congress, as well as state and local governments, should be encouraged to take their own initiatives in this regard as well. Such programs will strengthen mutual understanding of the forces that drive each others policies, in turn strengthening public diplomacy in general, and perhaps even policy decisions.
  • The current U.S. public diplomacy apparatus should be reorganized. Today, public diplomacy operations are spread across various agencies and assistant secretaries creating a muddled structure for public diplomacy professionals. The current organizational structure fails to appropriately support the field posts because of diffused responsibility within the regional bureaus and lack of line authority from the field, back up the line to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. While the former model of having a separate agency—the United States Information Agency—may have been more effective, the current challenge is to reorganize and streamline the current structure so that public diplomacy officers can design more effective programs and better feedback their findings into the policy making process.
  • Strengthen the impact of speaking tours. We should send significantly more speakers to Muslim-majority countries, and a larger proportion of these speakers should address what citizens there really want to talk about—U.S. foreign policy. This will engender two-way learning. Civil society across the Islamic world will develop a more nuanced understanding about how the U.S. foreign policy process really works. In turn, U.S. speakers will better understand the concerns emanating from the Islamic world, and be better able to inform the U.S. policy process if feedback mechanisms are created.

In other words, hatred of America can indeed be reduced—and in turn American security improved—through two major changes. First, we must turn U.S.-policy around. We must invest America’s political clout in pushing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership toward a just, fair and secure solution. We must further internationalize the security and administration of Iraq by seeking the leadership of the United Nations in the process. And we must engage civil societies across the Islamic world together with their governments to form partnerships for democratic change. Second, we must reduce one-way public diplomacy broadcasts such as Alhurra in favor of jointly planned activities and dialogue between Americans and the Islamic world.

A successful public diplomacy effort is essential to any successful foreign policy –all the more vital to U.S. security interests in the present climate of severe anti-Americanism in the Islamic world. If America fails to revitalize its public diplomacy apparatus, foreign perception of America will likely continue to deteriorate. A new outlook that emphasizes both key foreign policy changes and communication, jointness, and effective and innovative outreach is required to help raise America’s standing. This will not only improve the context in which our foreign policy is carried out, but also help improve U.S. national security.

Hady Amr is the co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, He is author of "The Need to Communicate: How to Improve U.S. Public Diplomacy with the Islamic World" (Brookings Analysis Paper, 2004). This piece draws largely on that paper. He can be reached at [email protected].




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