How the Arab World can work on its image

To many Arab states, getting their message across to the “West” seems close to a fairy tale and a far-fetched reality that is built on hopes and best wishes.
The world in the post 9/11 era has drifted in one direction that is mixed with greater anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments. However, the efforts spent on the part of Arab states to combat such blatant generalization and “guilt by association” policies can be characterized as weak or non existent.
There were numerous articles written in the Arab press and voiced on Arab satellite talk-shows that tried to understand the new “finger pointing” and gross generalization by many in the West of the Arabs and Muslims as the new “enemies” of civilizations and democracy. But these messages that many Arab intellectuals and journalists tried to relay remained confined in a vacuum, circulating among viewers and readers in the Arab World, with little chance for the “other” – i.e. the West – to hear or understand them.
Throughout history the Arab World, especially its “Intellegencia”, placed little importance on the need to voice their positions outside of their own geographical region, to where the message can be heard with more impact. Traditionally, the Arabs have led internal campaigns, where many important messages were left rotating in the households of fellow Arabs who share the same opinion – or as the saying goes: “they were merely preaching to the converters”.
Little importance was placed on re-engineering the message and negotiating its broadcast in the West, where stereotypes and disinformation are widely spread about the Arab World. Many Arab leaders and to a greater extent the Arab populace ask the question: Why doesn’t the West understand us? While to many the answer seems clear cut, the vehicle to clarify the Arab position remains confined to the realms of the questioner, without going a step forward in finding a way to correct these stereotypes and negative perceptions.
What remains missing in the Arab response to the continuous defamation of their culture and history by many ill-informed individuals or political action groups in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, is a pro-active Public Affairs campaign.
“Why Do They Hate Us?”
When U.S. President George W. Bush asked the question after 9/11: “Why do they hate us?”, he did not wait for the answer, but proceeded to hire Charlotte Beers, a communications specialist, and institute what is referred to as public diplomacy in order to clarify the U.S. message to the people that he claims “hate Americans” – i.e. the Arabs/Muslims.
The campaign to support the U.S. position vis-à-vis the “War on Terror” was divided into various sectors, however the main objective was directed at changing the way the Arab World view the U.S. through gaining support groups who will themselves aid in polishing the perception of the U.S. government’s policies in the region.
The U.S. administration also recently opted for a media blitz, having failed in other domains, through the founding of an Arabic-language radio station (Sawa) and a TV network (“Houra” or the Free) that were directed at the Arab World. While their objective, as both radio and TV director Mowafak Harb mentions in all press interviews, is to provide the Arabs with Western-style objective reporting, the fact remains that they were founded with the purpose of communicating the U.S. administration’s policies and to counter attack established Arab television networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, who are perceived as fueling “anti-American” sentiments among their Arab viewers.
It is evident, according to many analysts, that the U.S. public affairs campaign was not intended to answer Bush’s original question: Why do they hate us?, but rather to implant a new school of thought whose aim is to make the people of the region “stand by Bush’s policies and way of life”.
Clearly the U.S. government’s campaign has faced considerable challenges in the Arab World with the continued instability of the political situation in the region. What’s even more challenging to attain in the U.S. campaign is its lack of understanding of the Arab culture and reasoning as to why many in the region despise the U.S. government’s policies and tactics – especially in light of the U.S. administration’s military occupation of Iraq and its blatant support of Israel’s ethnic cleansing and occupation of Palestine.
A major flaw in the U.S. campaign centers on its neglect to answer the original question: “Why do they hate us?” and to jump instead to implementing a tactic to “make them blindly support us”!
The U.S. example in this article was intended to highlight two important points:
1) The U.S. government realized a flaw in its relations with the Arab World and worked immediately to correct it – in its own way
2) The flaws in the U.S. campaign were the result of mounting disinformation about the Arab/Muslim cultures
From a public affairs point of view, the Arab World can lead more successful campaigns in the West to polish its image and combat the numerous stereotypes about its cultures.
“Why Doesn’t the West Understand Us?”
The Arab World took the first step in the right direction when many of its leaders and intellectuals asked the obvious question: Why doesn’t the West Understand Us? There are many reasons as to why the Arab World was an easy bait, however, the most important reason is the Arabs’ failure to reach the Western culture and interact with its media and political systems.
For many decades, the Arab World played a reactive role in its international relations with the West and other cultures that were geographically distant from its own. For little less than a century, the image of the Arab was linked to “oil-rich sheikhs” – labeled by Hollywood as womanizers, filthy rich, “Camel-trotting”, gamblers, immoral and last but not least backward and uncultured.
Unfortunately, the Arab Intellegnecia failed throughout that period of time to clarify the Arab position and refute such racist stereotypical depictions, on the account of the motto: What doesn’t affect me directly won’t hurt me.
The damage created by Hollywood and many U.S. media institutions led to the current situation, where the Arabs and Muslims stand accused of being worse than womanizers and uncultured; they are tried for being “terrorists”, blood thirsty thugs and “enemies of democracy”.
The Arab silence for less than a century paved the way to the grim reality the Arab World is experiencing today. Clearly silence should not be the answer to the more serious accusations the Arab World was subjected to after 9/11.
Immediate action is required in the form of a massive public relations campaign that will negate the damaging accusations facing the Arab World. The message that is most crucial to relay to the West – especially the U.S. – is that the Arab World, notably its people, share the same values for freedom and democracy.
While the various cultures of the Arab World differ from their counterparts in the West – just like the cultures of Japan, China, Russia, etc. – the longing for stability, prosperity and “good life” remain part and parcel of the Arab World’s vision for the present and the future.
There are many messages circulating among the Arab media; however, to be more effective these messages need to be refined and redirected to where they can create positive impact – the Western World.
Such task should not be too difficult to achieve, since the U.S. is made up of various cultures, many of whom empathize with the Arabs and realize that there were many injustices imposed on that part of the world. Unfortunately, these communities in the U.S. or the West in general cannot fight on behalf of the Arab World. However, they can certainly play a strong role in supporting any campaign to clear the name of the Arab World.
Similarly, there were many public figures in the U.S., both in the political arena or in Hollywood – i.e. Shaun Penn, Michael Sheen, Michael Moore, etc. – who were courageous in opposing the war on Iraq and defending Palestinian rights. Unfortunately, their news failed to stir any efforts on the part of the Arab World to thank or stand by them when many at Hollywood were ready to black-list their names.
Therefore, the Arab World needs to take a leading role and spearhead as many organized campaigns as possible to clear its name and refute the racist claims that their region is a haven for “terrorists” and a breeding ground for extremism and anti-Western “virtues”.
Think Tanks
Strategic research centers, also known as think tanks, have played a major role in shaping the U.S. government’s policies throughout the past century. The increasing strength of “hawkish” or “pro-Israel” think tanks in Washington, D.C., for instance, in directing U.S. foreign policies was more evident in the recent war on Iraq, which was planned for and sold as a viable idea to the Pentagon by a neo-conservative group called The American Enterprise Institute, led in part by Richard Perle.
According to published reports, the Enterprise worked since the early ’90s to “cook-up” a dossier against Iraq, under the pretext of “weapons of mass destruction”. Their relentless efforts paid off with the new G.W. Bush administration, especially the Pentagon, who used the so-called “evidence” contained in the Enterprise’s documents to wage war against Iraq, topple its regime, and proceed to swing the “big stick” in the face of similar “tyrannies” in the region.
Similarly, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, under the directorship of Dennis Ross, ex-U.S. envoy to the Middle East, and including among its advisors assistant secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and ex-Israeli army officers, succeeded for years in polishing the image of Israel and defending its interests in the U.S. by shaping U.S. foreign policy in favor of a strong Israel.
Today, the two groups shine as the most influential institutes behind the Bush administration’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Palestine.
Absent Arab Think Tanks
Unfortunately, the Arabs and to a greater extent American-Arabs continue to play a reactive role in U.S. political affairs. Some political action groups such as the Arab American Institute (AAI) view their role in terms of mobilizing American Arab voters to interact more actively in the bi-partisan political system, others like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) center their efforts on defending the human rights of U.S. citizens of Arab descent from discrimination based on ethnicity and religion.
Rarely have we seen an active pro-Arab political think tank that has dedicated time and energy to reshaping U.S. foreign policy towards the Arab World. Such absence reflects to a great extent the degree of divide among the Arab states themselves, who prefer to work on pursuing their own individual interests with the U.S. rather than in creating a unified political bloc.
When the Arab Thought Forum was established over a year ago, many Arab intellectuals hailed the launch as a positive step in the right direction. Unfortunately, this step, as important as it seems, continue to operate in the confines of the Arab World, when in essence the announcement should have been made in Washington, D.C. rather than Beirut. It’s first office should have been somewhere near Capital Hill, rather than the Lebanese Parliament! Not to mention that its various speakers should have included pro-Arab U.S./Western leaders, writers and thinkers, with focus on how to change the image of the Arab World in the West, in addition to the valuable topics discussed at the Beirut conference.
Pro-Active Arab Enterprise
Let there be a collective effort among a number of Arab financiers for the creation of a strong American-Arab enterprise that includes influential American and Arab thinkers, scholars and strategists, whose aim is to prepare scenarios on: how the U.S. can benefit from a stable Arab World; the future of building common grounds between the U.S. and the Arab World; eradicating misconceptions and animosity among the Arab World and the U.S.; just to name a few.
Greater visibility is also required in parallel to the preparation of scholastic research papers, to the organization of regular town-hall meetings with intellectuals and political leaders, as well as a strong media campaign, including press briefings, interviews, and regular op-ed contributions in the major press – New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, LA Times, etc.
Instead of responding to Richard Perle or Daniel Pipes on national TV stations in the Arab World or pan-Arab publications, mobilized efforts/campaigns should spring out in the U.S. – starting with Washington, D.C., and spreading to all the major cities and states around the country.
The field of communications is vast and has the power to reshape opinions, only when utilized properly. As such, there are vast resources and public affairs activities that can be put together to aid in refuting the fallacies associated with the Arab World, in addition to building a bright image of the Arabs.
It is imperative at this juncture for the Arab World to welcome the new year with a clear pro-active strategy, since 2003 was beyond any doubt one of the worst years in modern Arab history.