Only a last-minute awaking of conscience among the perpetrators could have prevented the September 11 attack on the US. Its cross-cultural fallout between the Arabs and the United States, though, could have been averted.
There is a genuine fear that the perpetrators, while they won the first round of battle by a surprise attack, lost the second in Afghanistan but still succeeded in putting the West and the Arab/Muslim worlds on a cultural war footing. In an age that prides itself for super communication in content and channels, the cross-cultural communication exchanges between the US in particular and the Arab and Muslim worlds resemble horrifying images of medieval conflicts. The media on both sides are acting as the live battleground, with the potential for breeding disproportionate levels of misunderstanding and mistrust. Public diplomacy on both sides is disturbingly mute or totally impotent. Reason on both sides seems to have given way to emotions.
It is high time to start searching for common ground and reconciliation. The current and escalating exchange of misinformation needs to be put to a halt. It is time to take stock of what went wrong, why, and what needs to be done by both sides.
Only in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the subsequent US drive to rally Arab and Muslim support for its war against terrorism and the Taliban, did the US official public diplomacy realize that its attempts to market its case among the Arab general public is reaching deaf ears. The lukewarm reaction among the Arab and Muslim countries to the US conditions for joining the international alliance against terrorism, at both official and general public levels, was reported to have caught the US government off guard.
During his visits to several Arab states for the purpose of drumming up support for an international coalition against terrorism, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a first-hand experience with what he described as the "gulf of misunderstanding" between the West and the Arab world. US President George W. Bush has expressed his "amazement'" about the extent of this misunderstanding. In contrast, the Arabs have learned for decades that their marketing of the Arab cause, or more specifically the Palestinian cause, in the US has hardly made any headway. But the scale of the extent to which Arabs and Muslims are misperceived in the West has equally shocked them.
What is indeed amazing is not the depth of this misunderstanding, but rather that the US government has remained oblivious to the existence of such misunderstanding. From the Arab side one can only hope that this sudden awakening on the part of US public diplomacy will result in genuine efforts for bridging this gap. However token this US concern may turn out to be, it is an acknowledgment, for the first time, that public opinion in the Arab world matters in US foreign policy. Limiting a public diplomacy campaign to mere official propaganda will have no or limited long-term impact on how the Arab general public perceives US policy in the Middle East.
Sensitivity towards Arab public opinion was evident through the rush of appearances US officials made on pan-Arab satellite TV channels. The US government discovery of the Arab media came rather late and more as a reaction to the frequent appearance of Osama bin Laden on Al-Jazeera—less as a proactive, systematic, well-thought-out public diplomacy campaign with long-term goals.
The opening up of the pan-Arab satellite channels for official American public diplomacy has a number of implications. From the perspective of the Arab media, it is a testimony to the US recognition of the Arab media, whose potential impact on Arab public opinion has historically been ignored by the US. This spree of US officials granting interviews on most of the pan-Arab satellite channels is unprecedented—and it has vanished since the sudden collapse of the Taliban regime.
This virtually complete disappearance coincided with the re-emergence of regional issues that are by far more serious and relevant to the Arab general public—namely, the US threat of attacking Iraq and more particularly the escalation of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The nationalist and the religious dimensions of the latter conflict dwarf the issues stirred up by bin Laden's orphaned cause.
Based on the Arab reaction to the recent US public diplomacy stint in the Arab media, the US propaganda campaign can be considered ineffective at best. It proves that having the media—free of charge—carry a campaign is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for swaying the public opinion in the Arab world in favor of the US stance. This is especially the case in the absence of a campaign that has no clear message, let alone having a proper presentation format. It has been a campaign that can at best be characterized as a makeshift publicity campaign that lacks all the basics of a PR campaign so eloquently taught in US marketing communication textbooks.
With release of the second tape of Osama bin Laden great hopes were pinned on Mr. Christopher Ross, who speaks fluent Arabic and has first-hand experience in the Arab world that stretches over two decades in the diplomatic corps. While Ross was praised in the US media for his performance in communicating with Arab audiences, it is not clear as to how impressed his audiences were. Again, knowing fluent Arabic is not a sufficient and necessary condition for effective communication. Ross spoke exactly as a hesitant diplomat would, repeating many of his words and thoughts, without any passion for what he was stating. This performance has been very similar to that of every other US official who appeared on the Arab TV channels during the war on the Taliban—with the difference that all the others could not speak Arabic.
However eloquent it may be, simultaneous interpretation is less likely to stand a good chance of effectively conveying political messages to an arguably apprehensive foreign audience. Tony Blair was able to overcome this communication hurdle simply because he could overwhelm his Arab audiences with his passionate delivery. Every facial, body, and hand gesture Blair made with each word he uttered seemed to communicate genuine belief in what he had to say. His interview on Al-Jazeera as well as his press conferences with Arab heads of state were an outstanding demonstration of successful British public diplomacy in the Arab region.
Most of all, Tony Blair came to the region as an explorer of Arab sentiments towards the war against terrorism. And while he stated that he had learned a lot from his series of visits to the Arab states, he publicly begged to differ on many issues. At one stage Blair was dubbed the "US foreign minister" by the British press—he would certainly be the best fit for a post of foreign communication minister.
Those of us familiar with US domestic politics can easily detect the contrast between the performance of the US politicians addressing US audiences and their diplomatic counterparts addressing an international audience. The US diplomats do not fear losing the next election if they do not impress their audiences; politicians do. As an international audience, we were simply bored! In the age of television, US diplomats seem to still be more in tune with performing for radio or the print media. Reading Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death may be a practical preliminary guide to performing international political discourse in a visual media age.
Arguably, from the US perspective this disregard for impressing international audiences may largely be due to the built-in US perception that it matters very little if US policies are not "marketed" properly in the Arab region, as long as the US knows that others have to "buy" it anyhow.
This lack US official attention aimed at the Arab world is believed to be compounded by the lack of US-government-owned media channels that reach Arabs. News reports in the US and European media have stated that the radio station Voice of America barely reaches two percent of the Arabs, rendering it an ineffective media vehicle for reaching out and conveying US public diplomacy messages on a more mass scale.
The US Congress has approved the establishment of an FM radio station that transmits to the Arab world with the hope of connecting with young Arabs—the future decision-makers. Funds have also been appropriated for an overhaul in the product concept of the Arabic service of the VOA. Congress is reported to have come a long way toward approving a satellite TV channel for reaching Arabs. Unconfirmed reports hint that Fouad Ajami is being considered for the post of principal consultant for the political content mix of the prospective channel. It is believed that Ajami's recent extensive critique of Arab satellite channels, especially Al Jazeera, has earned him additional credits for this post.
There is no published research that shows whether Arabs tend to be less attracted to VOA because of lack of shortwave radios or because of its content. But just as the US foreign communication policy could learn from the communication performance of the British prime minister, it could also learn from the experience of the Arabic service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC remains an outstanding illustration of an effective international media organization owned and run by a former colonial power. Those of us who have experienced the program quality of the US domestic Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) realize how comparable it is with the BBC. For an international audience, it may be puzzling as to why there is such a difference in the content and presentation style of VOA and PBS.
The September 11th attacks put the Arab and the Muslim worlds on the defensive with respect to how they are perceived in the West. The current media campaigns, particularly in the US press, against the Arab regimes and Islam have rung the alarm bells louder than ever before about how their image and reputation is being remanufactured by the US mainstream media.
Since the launch of its international campaign against terrorism, the US government gave the Arabs, and the world as well, a clear ultimatum: either you're with us or against us. The US mainstream media seems to have given the Arab world a very different ultimatum: Change the political regimes, and change certain tenets of Islam or the way it is taught, or you are fertile ground for breeding extremism.
Each of the main US print media has taken its turn in giving the Arab states the recipe for political change, which will grant them good ratings under western political norms. The key Arab states that have been particularly targeted by this campaign insist that this is not the official US policy towards them. But in the Arab world there is very little differentiation between the official US policy towards the region and the mainstream US media. If anything, the US media is perceived to be even more critical than the US government on issues related to the Middle East conflict, Islam, and the Arab world. From the Arab perspective the current provocative role played by the mainstream US media can only contribute negatively to the US public diplomacy campaign towards the Arab world.
For the Arabs, most puzzling is the timing and the scale at which the negative media rhetoric is sustained against them in the US press. Arabs have been used to a media that reflects the official government policies and to a media that is influenced by government policies, not vice-versa. From the Arab perspective, the US media has never been considered friendly to Arab causes. It would be unthinkable for the US government to publicly try to tone down the media campaigns against the Arab states. This would be undemocratic.
A mute US public diplomacy towards the Arab states, in conjunction with a public media campaign on the loose, could be a very practical and effective foreign policy. It implicitly means the following: Let the US media dictate to others what they ought to do or else face the consequences of being on the defensive or outcast from the global village. These new series of demands the US media is presenting to the Arab governments could be perceived as prerequisites for granting them permanent residency in this global village. The preceding set of demands was the establishment of peace with Israel. A number of Arab governments have explicitly or implicitly done so. But establishing peace with Israel may prove to be a much sweeter pill to swallow compared to the prescription offered by the US media for introducing political change.
The US media has failed miserably in assessing the potential consequences of blaming Islam for the September 11th attacks. Both the Arab regimes and Islam have been identified as the prime culprits. The US media has for the first time in recent history formed a realignment between the Arab governments and their subjects. The Arabic adage comes very much to mind: My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger.
In a much talked about global village, Muslims and Arabs seem to be projected as a large group of strangers. They are not sure how the sheriff in this global village will welcome them. Signals coming from the US media give every indication that they need to be wary. This campaign in the US media has been a rude awakening to Arabs and Muslims at all levels, from the masses to the intellectual and the political elite. Arabs and Muslims in general have many good reasons to believe that they have been historically misunderstood and misrepresented in the western media in particular and in the western psyche in general. The September 11th attacks seem to have carried this misrepresentation to new levels.
Thanks to the US media, the Arabs have realized the power of media in projecting images or even influencing foreign policies. The scale of the new profiling of Arabs and Muslims at world levels has, like never before, exposed the feeble media power Arabs and Muslims possess to fend off what is being projected about them.
Last November the Arab League amassed over 70 Arab intellectuals and media experts for a conference over how best to rectify the image of Arabs and Muslims in the West. In order to emphasize rapprochement with the western civilization, the conference was called Civilizations Dialogue: Interaction not Confrontation. Dubai Media City is to host a similar conference next March. Saudi Arabia has hosted another international media conference in January, which was sponsored by Islamic World League, addressing the same issue. Kamal Abul Majd, an Egyptian intellectual with extensive interest in studying civilizations, has been assigned to the new post of Civilization Representative in the Arab League.
In its annual meeting in the United Arab Emirates this past December, the Executive Council of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) announced plans for launching a pan-Muslim TV channel. The purpose is to seek better interaction among Muslim communities worldwide and to reach out to non-Muslims as well. Thirty million dollars have been set aside for starting the project. The Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (AGCC) has earmarked $12 million for establishing three international TV channels in English, French, and Spanish. Egypt is reported to have already started an international TV channel targeting the western general public. Dozens of Arab and Muslim non-profit organizations have announced plans for tackling the same issue of image.
In short, the way the West perceives the Arabs and Islam matters to Arabs and Muslims. The image issue has evolved into a situation where it is not clear to what extent the West is looking at the Arab and Muslim worlds through lenses that have the Osama bin Laden label on them.
As Edward Walker, the director of the of Middle East Institute in Washington, has correctly observed in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, the image issue of Arab states is not so simple that it could be rectified through a PR campaign. For Walker, the crux of the matter has more to do with what actions need be taken politically, economically, educationally, and culturally to project an image that is more in line with what is perceived in the West as politically correct states. The Arab media, even the state-owned ones, have taken note of this through public debates. But the concern over how Arabs are perceived in the West is by no means matched by a concern in the West over how Arabs or Muslims perceive the West in general or the US in particular.
The precise thing that Mr. Walker advised the Arab governments against doing is what the US State Department is planning to do in terms of PR. Charlotte Beers, a former Uncle Ben's PR manager, is the newly appointed under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and is about to mount a PR campaign targeting Arabs. Her recent trip to Egypt to get a first-hand experience of how Arabs perceive the US is reported to have been very much in line with Tony Blair's own experience.
But neither the US nor the Arabs have taken any serious systematic approaches to learn why there is this gap of misunderstanding and mutual mistrust. The concern seems to be now more focused on how to set up media channels for reaching the other side, rather than about the content of the exchanged messages. Arabs have not been able to effectively use the existing mainstream US media. The common assumption is well known: their absenteeism is by the design of stronger lobbies in the US media. The less talked about reason is the chronic absence of media content that Arabs are able to convey to the US general public. Similar assumptions can be made about the ineffectiveness of the US public diplomacy that targets Arabs There is more focus on setting up new media channels than on content, and even less on finding out where the current media channels have gone wrong.
However, the US government is reported to be taking the establishment of a TV channel that targets the Arabs very seriously. Talks are underway with Dubai Media City, a media free zone, for having a formal presence in the heart of the Arab world. Indeed, having a presence in Dubai Media City would have a number of advantages for the prospective US TV channel. The first advantage is proximity to the Arab world. This should facilitate a better understanding of the needs of Arabs as potential viewers of the channel. With the current growth of free-to-air digital satellite telecast in the region, its distribution will be considerable across most parts of the Arab world, especially in the Gulf.
Just as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is positioned as a "media service" as opposed to the "voice of ...," the prospective TV channel needs to be positioned as a "service." The US government should borrow from the experience of the BBC World Service in this realm as well, avoiding branding that connotes that a radio or TV channel is just a mouthpiece for US public diplomacy. The United States' International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) took a positive step in this direction when it announced the launch of a FM radio station called Sawa (the equivalent of "together" in colloquial Arabic). News reports stated that Sawa will initially broadcast in Kuwait and Jordan.
The name Sawa is indeed a complete, positive departure from the standard more common name radio service name "voice" ("sawt" in Arabic) and the connotations the latter word could have. It is only coincidental that the two words have many letters in common; they have very different implications for the way the radio station could be perceived. The Arabs have an unpleasant experience with media vehicles that start with "Voice of...." A name of a media vehicle that starts with such a label tends to be associated with crude political propaganda. Over the past five decades the Arab masses have experienced dozens of audio and print media that started with "voice"—"ssawt" in Arabic. But soon the ssawt turned out to be a sawt, or a "whip," which was used to try to push the Arab people into what state political regimes wanted them to believe in or to do. Sawa, on the contrary, is an unusual name for a radio station in this part of the world and demonstrates a promising start.
The resources and the expertise that could be made available to a serious US public diplomacy effort could by far dwarf what the Arab or Muslim official bodies could amass. The problem is that on both sides state-owned media has not proven to be of any measurable success. Hence, borrowing expertise from the privately owned media becomes a must.
The agenda set by the mainstream US media does not seem to be geared towards reconciliation. The Arab media is just as embroiled in political rhetoric against the US. In the short term, neither will the US will soften its stance towards Israel, at least to a level that resembles that of the Europeans. Nor will the Arab states embark on a course of political change as prescribed by the US media. For any meaningful and fruitful communication exchange to take place, it must be based on understanding the other's viewpoints rather than trying to push them toward change.