November 10, 2007

"Physician, Heal Thyself"

Fred Kaplan at Slate has an article that asks the question, "Can American culture make Muslims love us?" Most of the first page of this two-page article meanders, but Kaplan gets to the point on the second page:

So, again, here's the question: What does America have going for it now? What could we send out to the world that might have the same impact on, say, Arabs and Muslims today that rock, jazz, and B-movies had on Russians and Europeans during the Cold War?

It may be, as Hughes (and both women who preceded her in the job) concluded, that there are no answers. The roar of Abu Ghraib, water-boarding, and military occupation—or even the quieter but still teeth-gnashing encounters with rude officials at U.S. embassies and airports—drowns out, or infects, our most engaging art forms and most strenuous attempts at public diplomacy. Even in its heyday, the U.S. Information Agency could do little to counter the clear "message" transmitted by the war in Vietnam. In that sense, policies do trump culture.

But let's say the next president begins to readjust American policy. It's not clear that anything in our culture might help restore our image.

First, the case of Cold War Europe might hold few lessons on how to mold the hearts and minds of current-day Arabs and Muslims.

Many people under Communist rule hated their governments. Since the world was divided into two blocs (the American-led West and the Soviet-led East), those who hated the East were predisposed to like the West. But today, in a world of dispersed power, people have many models from which to choose; Saudis or Egyptians who despise their autocratic regimes are more likely to find solace in Islamic fundamentalism than in any Western beacon.

During the Cold War, information was also divided in two: the Communist organs on the one hand, the BBC World Service and Voice of America on the other. The choice was stark and clear. One appeal of jazz and rock, especially in times of intense crackdown, was their forbidden status. Now, with satellite dishes and the Internet, everything is accessible. The challenge of sending out a message isn't that the foes are jamming the signal; it's that the channels are cluttered with so many other messages.

Once more, then: What is to be done? What should—what can—the next president do to improve America's image in the world?

There are some obvious measures. Train immigration and customs officials to lighten up; there are ways to stay on alert while making ordinary tourists feel welcome. Send speakers on foreign tours, even if they're (within reason) critical of U.S. policies. Translate more classic American books and documents, and make them available at foreign libraries. (Another way of putting these last two ideas: Bring back the U.S. Information Agency—an independent bureau, separate from the State Department, that promotes American values and culture, not an administration's policies.)

But what else? If you were president, or chairman of this revived USIA, how would you promote our values and culture? Quite apart from changing foreign and military policy (that's the subject of another column), how would you make America more appealing or at least less hated?

I had been thinking about this article for a couple hours when I mentioned it to Milady. "Are we [Muslims] supposed to hate them?" she asked.

I then explained that this is what Americans have been thinking since 2001, repeating that obnoxious line, "They hate us for our freedoms."
Milady laughed. She doesn't keep up with American politics as much as I do, for the obvious reason. "That's so narrow-minded," she said. Then, after a few seconds, she said, "If anything, I hate them for their ignorance."

And I would agree. On the one hand, if you want to improve relations with the Muslim world, changing foreign and military policy is the best thing the U.S. could do (NOW), starting with Iraq and Palestine. But if you want to focus only on soft issues like values and culture, I'd say that communications is the key. But not just a one-sided dialog, the United States to the Muslim world, as is currently happening, but with the United States also willing to both listen and learn from the Muslim world (and the rest of the world, for that matter).

Too many Westerners are well-meaning but ignorant fools who think, "If only Muslims would be more like us." That's not going to work. We Muslims have our own values and cultures, thank you very much, and we're not necessarily interested in yours. "But if only you knew what American culture is really like." Sorry, that's not really the case. As an American, I'm all too familiar with American values and culture, but I've been to Europe and Asia and have seen how pervasive American culture is around the world. Yes, granted, much of it is "Hollywood," and sometimes non-Americans take the wrong impression away from watching American films and TV shows. (I knew a Muslim woman who often watched the "woman in danger"-type movie that was prevalent on the Lifetime channel, and she was more or less convinced that that was how everyday life was like for American women.) Regardless, even with the distorted image, I think most non-Americans understand American values and culture fairly well. The problem then isn't so much that America needs to promote its values and culture to the world, but that it perhaps even needs to tone down the amount of "culture" it bombards the world with. American culture, especially in the form of music, movies and television, but even through the Internet, is extremely pervasive. I live literally on the other side of the world from where I was born, yet eleven of the twenty cable TV channels I receive are American.

The real problem is not that America needs to promote its own values and cultures to the world, but that the world needs to promote its values and cultures to the U.S. Most Americans are terribly parochial and ignorant about the rest of the world. What makes matters worse is that, in addition to the well-meaning but ignorant fools, you also have the malicious but equally ignorant fools (witness the recent "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week"). Many of the suggestions Mr. Kaplan made are fine, in and of themselves, but the single most important recommendation I could make to him would come from the Bible (Luke 4:23): "Physician, heal thyself." Instead of spending money seeking to change others, spend your money on trying to change yourselves. Educate yourselves on what the rest of the world is like. Those decades worth of dusty National Geographic magazines obviously haven't done much good in teaching you all about foreign lands and cultures. Instead of seeking foreign college students to attend American universities, hoping that they will be favorably impressed with the U.S., send American college students abroad for at least one year to see what the world is like. (And don't make this program only for those students whose families can afford this; set a goal of, say, 10% of all American college students to study abroad.) Tone down the missionary attitudes and seek to understand how other cultures work the way they do. Often there's a logic that not only makes sense, but may be a superior method for problems common to all of us. Work to tamp down the misinformation being spewed by the malicious but equally ignorant fools. Muslims know the score; relations will never improve as long as Islamophobia runs rampant through the U.S. We can see the obvious historical parallel between today and the antisemitism of Nazi Germany. And last, but certainly not least, please just accept us for the way we are.

One, be sure to visit my update to this post.

Second, this post was linked to the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. (Thanks to John Brown!)

And, third, I noted in my web statistics counter that someone at the U.S. State Department visited this post early Tuesday morning (Washington DC time). I hope that this administration will take some of these suggestions (in both this post and in my update) to heart. We are all concerned about the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world; let's open the doors of communication and keep Clausewitz and his theory on war ("war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means") in the closet where he belongs.


Anonymous said...

Right on!

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