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International Journalists Say Reaching Out to Muslim World Is Important

Faced with a declining U.S. image abroad, President Bush has turned to his former White House political advisor to assume the new post of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Karen Hughes, who is widely considered a skillful communicator, has said she is “mindful” that, before the United States seeks to be understood, it must “first work to understand.” Simply put, her job – which she assumes on August 15 – is to fight anti-Americanism, promote American culture, and do battle with the ideology of radical Islam.

Speaking with VOA host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said the task facing Karen Hughes – and the United States – is huge. And it starts with careful listening. She noted that U.S. public diplomacy has a long way to go because, particularly in the Muslim world, there is so much mistrust of the West and especially the United States. According to Mona Eltahawy of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, public diplomacy should begin with real dialogue rather than a monologue, which is how the Muslim world perceives Washington. She welcomed the addition of the a young Egyptian-American, Dina Habib Powell, to Karen Hughes’ staff but thinks it would have been preferable to have chosen a Muslim for the position because such symbols are especially important at this time.

But Akbar Ahmed, Pakistani journalist and former ambassador to Britain, said the issue of Ms. Powell’s not being a Muslim is not a critical factor and that some extraordinarily fine scholars who understand the Muslim world have been Christians or Jews. According to Abkar Ahmed, to be effective in a post-9/11 environment, U.S. public diplomacy needs to be supplemented with expanded interfaith activity. He called it a “great tragedy” that over the past four years U.S. public diplomacy, which was such an “important plank” in the war on terror, has been a real disappointment.

Palestinian journalist Daoub Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, said, if public diplomacy is to succeed, then U.S. policy goals – such as the two-state solution for the Middle East – need to be implemented. Otherwise, Washington will continue to face a crisis of credibility. But Mr. Kuttab said he is guardedly optimistic about President Bush’s choice of Karen Hughes as his new public diplomacy advisor because she is powerful, a good communicator, and has the “ear of the President.” Nevertheless, it is “naïve” to expect public diplomacy to succeed without being accompanied by “realities on the ground.”

According to Akbar Ahmed, encouraging the voices of moderate Muslims is a major part of the task if U.S. public diplomacy is to change “hearts and minds.” He said, although the Muslim world is “thirsty” for a reaching out of the hand of friendship, if the United States is to be successful, it will take a lot of “effort, imagination, and compassion.” He joined other international journalists in congratulating the Bush administration for its recent initiatives in trying to revamp its public diplomacy efforts.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.