IN THE NEWS
Building on the last post about taking al Qaeda's words seriously, it's fairly obvious that we are doing a poor job in winning the war of ideas, the other front in the war against terrorists. Where Islamist leaders, many from groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, can quote Aristotle's writings about tyrannicide to justify their actions, the American voice is much less sophisticated.
Voice of America is the exception, and it's only because it provides decent news coverage that it's taken seriously at all. Residents of the Middle East, like people anywhere, are interested in an accurate depiction of daily events. Voice of America provides a credible newsfeed, but that's about it.
The now-defunct but still live web site for the Coalition Provisional Authority represents the norm for American public diplomacy: amateurish, unconvincing, and written more for an American audience than an Iraqi one. Before the transfer of sovereignty, when the web site officially stopped any further updates, its chirpy, good news tone was wildly out of sync with the bloody reality of sabotage, bombings, kidnappings, and street battles.
But there's not really much else going in the American "public diplomacy" effort. (Click here for a good discussion of this problem.) The government-produced infomercial, intended to convince Muslims outside the United States that this is a tolerant country, used all the techniques--personal testimonials, syrupy soundtrack, gauzy cinematography--that might work in a campaign ad, but was completely wrong for a Middle Eastern audience. It also didn't go to the heart of the reasons why people join Islamist causes, the sense of despair they feel in the face of forces beyond their control in their own countries. For a Saudi who is outraged at the royal family's corruption, distrustful of Western consumerism, angry about the Palestinians, and afraid of losing his job, the infomercial was completely meaningless. Meanwhile, Islamist groups are happy to provide this person with a coherent worldview that has both the comfort of the familiar (Islamic religion) as well as the allure of the new (a radical strategy for the cleansing of the Dar al Islam).
When you read statements by the leaders of al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other terrorist groups, you're immediately struck by how erudite they are. They quote the Koran, Middle Eastern history, Western history, classic scholars like Aristotle, modern poets...However, Middle Easterners are no fools, however; they know that the actions of these groups often belie their real motives. Unfortunately, terrorists who mean us harm need only convince a small group of people to operate effectively, and it's not just the ubiquitous madrassas that provide messages sympathetic to al Qaeda and similar groups.
Islam, as Daniel Pipes illustrated in In the Path of God, is a religion of law, not faith. Behaving well by cleaving to the Shari'a, generates piety, and helps people behave as close as they can in imitation of the Prophet. Muslim scholars are the influential figures, and particularly in Shi'ism, they achieve their ranks by impressing others with their sagacity and scholarship.
Therefore, if we are going to have any public diplomacy effort at all, it needs to speak in the same language as al Qaeda. We need to reach the same audience they do, with more than pictures of American Muslims going to work and playing fetch with their dogs. We need fewer managerial types like Paul Bremer, fewer American spinmeisters like Karen Hughes, and fewer fulminators like Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, we need at least a few prominent Americans who can quote the Koran or the Hadith Reports right back at al Qaeda. Mumbling how Islam is a religion of love, or intoning the same soundbyte about how "the terrorists hate freedom," might have some significance for American politics. It is worse than silence for Middle Eastern audiences, since it deepens their sense that the United States does not understand them, and doesn't care to.
UPDATE: This analysis from the Heritage Foundation is worth a look. If you skip past the gratuitous State Department slapfest in the first part of the article, there is an excellent summary of the recent (and, sadly, unsuccessful) efforts at public diplomacy in the Middle East.