By William Fisher
If Jews, Catholics or Protestants in the United States were being maligned, misunderstood, misrepresented, and attacked by news media and TV talking heads on a daily basis, what do you think they would do?
They would fight back. They would lay out and execute long-term programs to tell their stories. They would try to provide positive counterweights to negative criticism.
Today, Islam is being maligned, misunderstood, misrepresented, and attacked by news media and TV talking heads on a daily basis. And what do we hear from Muslims?
But silence can be deafening. It confirms America’s already widely-held belief that Muslims are terrorists, that they care more about death than about life, and that they will do whatever it takes to kill as many Americans as possible.
And the longer these attitudes persist, the more they are believed.
What to do?
Muslim Arabs – yes, Americans think all Muslims are Arabs – rarely reach unanimity about anything. That is what has made The Arab League all but irrelevant. Over the years, the disagreements among their member states have brought them to virtual paralysis.
But here is an issue on which they might just possibly find consensus. They need to come together with non-Arab Muslims to say, “Islam is being vilified, and we’re not going to take it any more!”
In America, there is only one effective answer to ‘then what?’ Find the most thoughtful and professional public relations firm money can buy, and ask them to design a communications program to begin to educate the American media and the American public about what Islam is and is not.
Finding such a firm will not be difficult – there are at least a dozen in the US with demonstrable experience in conceiving and implementing these kinds of programs. Nor will paying their fees – world-class PR firms are expensive, but the amount is close to petty cash for the Islamic world.
What will be difficult is staying the course. Changing attitudes fuelled by events like 9/11 will not be easy. And, if the program is to be credible, Islam will have to speak frankly and often about its shortcomings and its miscreants. It cannot gloss over those who have hijacked the faith.
Nor can it be done quickly. This is a process that will take years, perhaps a generation. Ask the Saudis, who have recently launched a public relations effort in the US. Ask the Roman Catholic Church, which is going to spend many years trying to dig itself out from under the awful wreckage caused by sexual abuse. So any PR firm that talks about ‘silver bullets’ should be dismissed out of hand. The magnitude of the task will demand infinite patience.
Why should Muslims care?
First, there are several million Muslim-Americans living in the United States. Since 9/11 may of them have experienced suspicion and discrimination. Others have been victims of hate crimes. Second, the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, with the largest economy in the world. In this era of globalization, its goodwill and understanding are critical – economically, politically, socially, culturally.
That is about what Muslims and the nations they come from can get from America. But there is something equally important Islam can give to America: Deeper knowledge to help the US execute a more balanced, more culturally sensitive, more even-handed foreign policy.
And that will benefit both Islam and America.
About the writer: William Fisher spent more than twenty years in the public relations business, and then managed international economic development programs in the Middle East for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.