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Less Information Widens US-Muslim Gap


Anti-U-S sentiment in the Muslim world has reached an all-time high since the allied invasion of Iraq. Reports show that a lack of information on both sides has further widened the gap between the United States and the world’s Muslims.

US Foreign Policy Perceived As Biased

In media reports, surveys and discussion groups, Muslims worldwide have made it clear that they generally like American democratic values, institutions and products. But most have a problem with U.S. foreign policy, which is perceived as biased against Muslims.

A new report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations confirms that the perception many Muslims have of the United States is based on misinformation. Craig Charney of Charney Research, which produced the report, says focus groups studies in Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia show that most people in these countries know very little about the aid they receive from the United States.

“We found that there were remarkably few people who knew anything about the positive things the U.S. was doing in their countries: the low-polluting buses or the health clinics that America had provided in Egypt, the computers in the classroom or the vocational training programs in Morocco and health projects or assistance to democratic elections in Indonesia.”

Local Media Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes of America

Mr. Charney says the local and regional media, and even international news organizations have done very little to inform the public in Muslim countries of the help and support they receive from the United States. “We found that the dominant news media in these countries, particularly TV networks like Al-Jazeera, had, for whatever reasons of their own, almost completely neglected these things, while American-based news media, like Radio Sawa and the al-Hurra television network, had done very little to successfully project [i.e., sufficiently report on] them.”

As a result, says Mr. Charney, there are many incorrect negative stereotypes about U.S. foreign policy. Many Muslims believe that it is driven by America’s Jews. Discussions with Egyptians, Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, indicate that most Muslims in these countries think that Jews make up the majority of the U.S. population.

“We got estimates of anywhere from ten to 80 percent," says Mr. Charney. "The correct answer is two percent. The more sophisticated people said: ‘Well, Jews are ten percent of the population, but 80 percent of the parliament’ [i.e., U.S. Congress]. The correct answer is 12 percent. In short, not only have people been informed only about certain things about the United States, not only have they been uninformed about others, but in one important area, Muslims have been actively disinformed about the United States,” Mr. Charney says.

Scarcity of Accurate Information About US

Many observers say that the United States could do more to dispel some of these

negative stereotypes and provide accurate information about its policies to the Muslim world. Some say that the sharp rise of anti-American sentiment since the launch of the U.S. war on terror could have been curbed with a concerted public diplomacy effort.

Christine Saah of the Arab-American Institute here in Washington, cites the relative scarcity of economic and cultural exchange between the United States and Muslim countries. She says the United States should make its goods and services as well as its educational and technological expertise more accessible to Muslims worldwide.

“Arabs –- this is a generalization -- mostly like American culture and like American products. They probably don’t like many [U-S] policies, but they like the idea of American culture and Hollywood and products. So I believe that we should take advantage of that and there’s a lot we can do economically. And as far as education, this is a perfect way to promote reform in the Arab world.”

Economic and Cultural Exchange Could Help

According to Christine Saah, Americans also need to learn more about Muslims, both in the U-S and abroad. Since the war on terror began, many American Muslims have complained of discrimination, deepening anti-American sentiment among fellow Muslims overseas. In the past, many exchange programs have enabled visiting students, educators and journalists to learn about host cultures first-hand and take that knowledge home.

But funding for these projects has declined since the end of the Cold War. In addition, says William Rugh, a Middle East consultant who served in many Muslim countries as a U-S foreign service officer, the difficulty of obtaining a student visa and the perception of Muslim students that they are not wanted in the United States have turned many more away.

“The British and the French and the Australians and others worked hard to welcome Arab students because it is to their benefit to have Arab students study in their countries instead of in America. And so many Arab students have gone to England and Australia and other places instead of America.”

Muslims Want Dialog With America

So according to Mr. Rugh, they learn more about these countries than they do about the United States. Plans to renew exchange programs will take time and money. But some public diplomacy measures can be undertaken immediately, says pollster Craig Charney.

“And they are a humbler tone, a focus on bilateral partnerships –- Muslim-led -– for development and democracy, and a willingness to agree to disagree about contentious security issues.”

Mr. Charney says focus groups in Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia, make it clear that Muslims want a dialog with the United States in which they are equal partners. Some analysts also say that instead of criticizing regional media such as Al Jazeera, the United States should make more of an effort to have its views included in them. Then, Mr. Charney says Egyptians, for example, may continue to criticize U.S. foreign policy, but at least they will know that their country receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid every year.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.