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Effort To Win Over Muslims Challenges US 'Public Diplomacy' - 2002-05-16

Since the September 11 attacks against the United States, the Bush administration has sought to expand and redefine what it calls "public diplomacy," the effort to explain U.S. policies to international audiences. The drive to show that the United States is friendly toward Muslims has become a central part of the public diplomacy effort in the wake of Middle East violence and of the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign.

Charlotte Beers had already made her mark as one of America's top public relations executives over a 30-year career when Secretary of State Colin Powell selected her to be his Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy.

Well known in public relations circles for her onetime marketing of commercial products, Secretary Beers faced a challenge the moment she took office just three weeks after the September terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Public diplomacy, as defined by Ms. Beers, revolves around two priorities: to explain U.S. government policies to foreign audiences generally; and to make it clear that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is not directed against either Muslims or Islam.

Ms. Beers spoke this week in Washington at a forum on U.S.-Muslim relations. She sought to counter what she called the perception that Muslims are badly treated in the United States.

"The number of Muslims is rated somewhere between three and six million, it's hard to isolate that number," she said. "They clearly worship freely; the conversion rate in the Muslim religion is up 20 percent, which is higher than most sales curves we see today. There are 1,200 mosques, each more beautiful than the next. You have to see these mosques to realize what beauty and reverence, and ability, resides in the willingness and ability to build those mosques."

To underscore her point, one of Secretary Beers' web sites, called "Islam in America," features profiles of and interviews with U.S.-based Muslims who say they are freer to practice their religion than they would be in many predominantly Muslim countries.

In addition, the office of Secretary Beers helps produce television programs that show a thriving U.S. Muslim community and arranges meetings between U.S. and foreign Muslim leaders.

Ms. Beers' strategy also echoes President Bush's belief that religion, any religion, is greatly beneficial in all spheres of life. Mr. Bush has frequently praised Islam as a religion of peace, something he did in a Washington speech only days after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

"The faith of terror is not the true faith of Islam. It's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace," the president said. "These terrorists don't represent peace: They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world."

However, some critics of the administration's effort say the emphasis on Islam in America is exactly where U.S. public diplomacy is going wrong. Daniel Pipes is one of America's best-known commentators on Middle Eastern affairs and says that the real issue is not whether Islam flourishes in the United States. Rather, he believes the U.S. government is in a war of ideas and should try to ally itself with moderate Muslims against militant Islam.

"It is very necessary to combat it. I don't think the U.S. government is in a position to combat it: It is a secular government, almost entirely non-Muslim in composition and it is in no position to argue about militant Islam," he said. "What it can do is work with moderate Muslims who can make the case against militant Islam, promote them, their ideas.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the administration has been working closely with a number of Muslim governments as part of its ongoing campaign to fight terrorism. But some critics of the administration's public diplomacy effort wonder whether it is possible to use the techniques of advertising to "sell" the United States and the principles it stands for as if they were a commercial product.