By William Fisher
As the Muslim world continued to demonstrate its hostility to the U.S. on the heels of a Newsweek magazine article charging that a copy of the Koran was flushed down a toilet, America’s premiere foreign policy organization issued a new report claiming that better communications could still win Muslim hearts and minds.
But the report, issued by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said better U.S. communications will require "listening more, a humbler tone, and focusing on bilateral aid and partnership, while tolerating disagreement on controversial policy issues," as well as substantial funding and effort.
Newsweek reported that it was told by an unnamed source that evidence of desecration of the Koran would be included in an upcoming government report on events at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The source later turned out to be unreliable, and Newsweek retracted its story.
The CFR report -- A New Beginning: Strategies for a More Fruitful Dialogue with the Muslim World – is based on the results of focus group research in Morocco, Egypt, and Indonesia. The research was carried out by Craig Charney and Nicole Yakatan of Charney Research.
The report points out that in all three countries, images of the United States are dominated by resentment of American power and anger directed at President George W. Bush--negative attitudes that spill over to American brands and people. "Perceptions matter: most Muslims do not hate America for 'who we are' or 'what we do', but for what they perceive we do."
The Council said, “Muslim views of the United States as domineering and hostile reflect relentless local reporting on Iraq, Palestine, and purported negative American attitudes toward Muslims, along with ignorance of U.S. aid programs to the region and U.S. support for regional reform.”
Reports on television networks largely hostile to the United States are Muslims' main source of information; U.S. government-sponsored media (Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa) have little impact in the region.
The effects of unfavorable media coverage are reinforced by stereotypes about the U.S. decision-making process, particularly about alleged Jewish influence on U.S. foreign policy.
However, the report finds, America currently has a window of opportunity to change Muslim attitudes. Positive impressions about tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, Iraq's recent election, and new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are providing the second Bush administration a chance for a fresh start.
“Rather than trying -- and failing -- to persuade Muslims to support American policies in Iraq or Palestine”, the report says, “the United States should publicize its significant development aid to their lands, which, despite soaring aid budgets, is almost invisible to them.”
Other commentators have taken a different view.
“The US government can repackage its policies all it wants, but people will see through the words as long as the US government continues to treat the region simply as a means to an end: strategic control over oil,” said Brian Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal Law School in Jacksonville, Florida.
And Jack N. Behrman, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and former Assistant Secretary of Commerce, said, “Nothing in the PR or public diplomacy arena can offset the acts of the U.S. and the statements of Bush himself, which remain dictatorial, arrogant, and insensitive to the Arab world and it peoples. AID remains locked into its old-style assistance and cannot apparently focus on the fundamental, long-term needs there -- namely education, development of enterprise, and employment opportunities, plus openings to the world economy. Joining the world community gives hope, but it must be done while permitting cultural differences--so long as they do not include intolerance from any quarter.”
The CFR report says, “When focus group members learned of U.S. aid efforts -- via media reports on tsunami relief in Indonesia or support for women's rights in Morocco -- it significantly improved their attitudes toward the United States”.
Although the seriousness of the anti-American attitudes has won growing recognition, neither public nor private efforts have addressed Muslim hostility to America with the sustained focus or resources required, the CFR said.
Among the report's recommendations:
Focus on partnerships in support of local Muslim initiatives, without presenting the United States as the motor of change.
Agree to disagree on contentious issues involving other countries, such as Iraq or Israel and Palestine.
Engage local and regional media via press releases, interviews, Op-Eds, press conferences, and site visits.
Launch an advertising campaign on U.S. aid and support for reform in local and regional media, and acknowledge the U.S. government as the source.
Improve reporting of aid programs, particularly those concerning economic, education, and health aid, in U.S. government media.
The CFR research found that immediate reactions to the United States reveal resentment of American power and of President George W. Bush. American behavior is perceived as being largely predatory. The report said this hostility is spilling over into negative attitudes toward American people and brands.
Other key findings:
“Since September 11, 2001, the United States is also viewed as hostile to Muslims both abroad and domestically, in its visa policy as well as in daily life.
The Palestinian intifada and the Bush administration’s embrace of Israel’s government have helped strengthen the impression of double standards in
America’s treatment of Muslims.
These attitudes have been reinforced by “widespread stereotypes and misinformation about American foreign policy, particularly regarding Jewish influence on it, even among the well-educated Muslims in the focus groups”.
Another important influence is the rise of television, especially Arabic satellite networks such as al-Jazeera. “Their constant critical coverage of U.S. policy is the main source of information about America for focus group members and drives local Arab media.
Focus group members “do not take seriously U.S. government media, such as Radio Sawa, al-Hurra TV, and Hi magazine, as information sources.
Prominent local Islamists have little following among the educated Moroccans and Egyptians but have some standing among Indonesians. Osama bin Laden retains substantial appeal as an anti-American symbol in all three countries.
American development assistance has become “all but invisible to the populations it benefits”.
What Muslims say they want from America is respect, understood as consultation and nonintervention, and development aid in which they, not Americans, define their needs.
The CFR cautioned that “substantial efforts will be required to communicate more effectively. Turning information and initiatives into communications that are heard requires more actively engaging local media—including the controversial al-Jazeera — as well as paid advertising, effective spokespeople, and logos and labels on aid. “
Numerous reports by government agencies and private non-government organizations have been harshly critical of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. President Bush recently nominated his former senior aide and close confidante, Karen Hughes, to lead a new public diplomacy push by the U.S. State Department. Several high profile figures have taken on the task in the past few years, but have ultimately resigned.