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US Launches Effort Against Anti-Americanism in Muslim World - 2001-11-13

In an address to the United Nations, President Bush became the first U.S. chief executive to mention a state of Palestine. Aside from matters of justice and equity, this statement was aimed at Muslim opinion, which is considered vital for maintaining the coalition against terrorism. The United States has launched a broad communication effort to try to combat rising anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

"The so-called Arab street is a figment of the imagination that has become a reality."

That is how Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, described the growing importance of Arab opinion to the New York Times.

Thanks to satellites, and al-Jazeera television coverage in particular, an information explosion has rocked the Muslim world. Authoritarian governments are no longer able to suppress or control the news. In that respect, freedom reigns with consequences yet to be fully seen.

So the Bush administration has embarked on a multi-faceted communication effort to convey the American message and counter opposing voices. As many observers note, this battle for people's minds may be the most important war.

Advertising executive Charlotte Beers has been chosen to head the U.S. effort. She is to oversee a variety of projects aimed at foreign countries, especially Muslim nations. She says she would like to present Muslims in America to the world. "I think that the story about Muslim life in the United States is absolutely mind opening," she said. "And if we can make that statement or get it communicated in many of these countries, I think it does explain a lot about tolerance and diversity and mutual support of one another without having to turn it into dry words."

All very well, says Mr. Gergez. Yet actions speak louder than words or videos. "It seems to me the question is not really about delivering a message, but about the contents of a particular message," he said. "When the President mentions the need to establish a Palestine state, I think this is a highly effective and a highly powerful statement. I do not believe it is a matter of gimmicks. I do not believe it is matter of putting a spin on the American message to the Arab and Muslim world. I think it is a matter of concrete policies and concrete actions on the critical issues standing between the Arabs, the Muslims and the United States."

As part of the war effort, U.S. aircraft are broadcasting to Afghanistan and dropping leaflets. Professor Gergez thinks these messages may have a limited effect on Afghans, but do not address broader Arab concerns.

The Economist magazine finds them largely tone-deaf, citing one broadcast: "Attention Taleban. You are condemned. Did you know that?" This is hardly compelling, said the Economist.

Writes the New York Times: "Where one nation is bombing another, it is difficult to convince the bombed of the virtues of the bomber."

Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani police officer now at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says one broadcast was too broad an attack. "That message seems to address all Afghans, whereas the focus of this message perhaps is a small army of Taleban, Osama bin Laden, and company," he said. "There has to be a very clear-cut distinction, and this must be conveyed to them. Every Pashtun should not be given the impression that he is the one who is being bombed."

Above all, said Mr. Abbas, say nothing that seems to insult Afghans or impugns their honor.

Do not rule out the enemy, advises Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalists at Harvard University. He says the U.S. government erred in urging television networks not to broadcast an Osama bin Laden video.

The American people should not be sheltered from propaganda, he insists, especially when it is newsworthy. Besides, Mr. Giles says, the terrorist showed some signs of desperation that Americans should have been allowed to see.