Television images of provocative American entertainers like teenage diva Britney Spears are widely viewed as offensive in strict Islamic countries, where women must cover all parts of their bodies and are forbidden from even speaking to male strangers in public.
Freedom of speech prevents the government from blocking the global dissemination of aspects of American culture — such as certain types of movies, television programs and music — that some Muslims find so distasteful.
Besides, censoring the entertainment industry probably wouldn't work anyway, says Daniel L. Byman, research director at the Rand Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. “I don't think the Islamists can win the war on American culture because their people want it,” he says. “It's not like we're forcing U.S. movies down the throats of the Pakistanis. They want them.” Even if the government were to put restrictions on Hollywood, someone would just make black-market videos, he suggests. “So I don't think there's much we can or should do on that front.”
Teenage singer Britney Spears, performing at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, reflects an aspect of American culture that many Muslims find decadent and offensive. (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)
But there are things the U.S. government should do, Byman says, to improve America's image overseas, especially on the “Arab street,” the common catch phrase for public opinion throughout the Muslim world. “The United States has gone to war on behalf of Muslims a lot in the last decade,” he says. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, U.S.-led forces repelled an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and more recently sought to stop the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.
“I'm not saying the American record has been perfect or that the United States has been the champion of the Islamic world, but, hey, we should at least get some credit for what we have done,” he says.
Beginning with the Cold War in the early 1950s, the U.S. government maintained a robust propaganda apparatus through the U.S. Information Agency, which beams foreign-language broadcasts through Voice of America radio stations to billions of people around the world. But as developing countries opened radio and television stations of their own, viewers gravitated to their local broadcasters, which the U.S. government largely ignored as vehicles for disseminating its own message. In fact, in recent years, Congress has even slashed the budgets for USIA and the VOA.
However, faced with recent images of flag-burning anti-American Muslim demonstrators — many of them convinced that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were masterminded by Israel's secret service — the Bush administration has decided that the United States needs to dust off its propaganda machine to at least get Muslims to hear America's side in the current war on terrorism. In addition, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has made at least three lengthy speeches — broadcast in their entirety on the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera satellite television network — claiming that America wants to annihilate Islam, rather than just eliminate terrorists and those who harbor them.
To get its message out, the administration decided to use the same medium. Known as the Arab world's answer to CNN, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera is the main source of television news in many Muslim countries, where it claims 35 million viewers.
Beginning with an Oct. 15 interview with Bush National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, several administration officials have appeared on Al-Jazeera to explain that the bombing campaign in Afghanistan was targeted not at innocent civilians, but at bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network and the Taliban leaders who protect him. At least one spoke in Arabic. The State Department also recruited Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive, to run a new effort to improve the United States' image in the Muslim world. Also under consideration by Congress and the administration is a $500 million, around-the-clock, Arabic-language satellite television channel to compete with Al-Jazeera and other local outlets.
National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice appears on Al-Jazeera TV on Oct. 15 to counter charges that the bombing in Afghanistan was targeted at civilians. (AFP Photo)
And last week, first lady Laura Bush and Cheri Blair, the wife of the British prime minister, launched a worldwide information campaign exposing Taliban cruelty toward women.
But critics say the United States will lose the propaganda war unless it does more. “We need a Jamie Rubin equivalent for the Islamic world,” says Byman, referring to former President Bill Clinton's personable and highly visible State Department spokesman. “We need [someone] who speaks Arabic and who is a regular voice of the administration, who doesn't wait to show up on Arab television when thousands of Americans die, but who addresses more mundane issues, such as explaining why we imposed sanctions on Iraq.”
Getting the message out may be of limited value, however. “We're talking about perceptions that have taken decades to develop, that are based not only on rhetoric but on policy, and you're not going to be able to change that by making statements,” says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “They don't trust the United States, and if you don't trust the messenger you're not going to trust the message, certainly in the middle of a crisis.”
A better approach, Telhami contends, would be to support moderate leaders in the Muslim world who are in a better position to deliver the message opposing terrorism and advancing democracy. “You can't look at this as something the U.S. can win on its own,” he says, “but rather as empowering the moderates in the region to fight their own war and giving them ammunition to make arguments against the militants.”