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DRAFT - book chapter  (04/2003)
Critical Perspectives on Al Jazeera
Editor - Mohamed Zayani (American University of Sharjah, UAE)

Al-Jazeera & American Public Diplomacy:
A Dance of Intercultural Miscommunication

R.S. Zaharna
American University

In the aftermath of the attacks in America on September 11, 2001, Americans were asking, “Why do they hate us?” The attacks jolted the American psyche.  Most Americans were blissfully unaware of how they were perceived in other parts of the world.  To them, it was inconceivable that other people could harbor such animosity against America.  In their search for an explanation, many Americans concluded that other peoples “don’t understand us.” American President George Bush echoed the sentiments of a stunned nation when he said, “we have to do a better job of telling our story.”

Americans felt it was particular pressing to tell America’s story in the Arab and Muslim world. Not only were the hijackers from this area, but it was also where many believed America’s message was most distorted.

Once attention turned to the Arab and Muslim world, the spotlight focused on Al-Jazeera as a channel to reach the Arab world.  However, what looked like a promising relationship between Al-Jazeera and American officials soon became plagued with misunderstandings. Each appeared to have unspoken assumptions about the other -- its goals, audience, message and even, the way the other defined news.  The more the two interacted, the more misunderstandings emerged. The frustration produced the inevitable strains and tensions.

With the start of the American-lead war in Iraq and Al-Jazeera’s coverage of it, cultural misunderstandings have emerged once again.  This time however, the relations between the Arab news network and American officials have become even more strained and  the hostility against Al-Jazeera has filtered down to the American media and public.

The cultural differences that plague the relationship between Al-Jazeera and American public diplomacy officials is somewhat similar to a hidden dance described by intercultural communication scholars John Condon and Fathi Yousef.   The dance occurs during a conversation between an Englishman named Mr. Jones and a Mexican gentleman named Mr. Lopez.  Mr. Jones preferred to stand arm’s length from his conversation partner, while Mr. Lopez preferred to stand much closer. Neither is aware of each other’s hidden cultural assumption about the “proper distance” one should stand while carrying on a conversation. So as they talk, a kind of dance ensues.  Mr. Lopez steps forward to decrease the distance between them while Mr. Jones steps back to increase the distance.  Both feel awkward and uncomfortable, yet neither realizes why. In the end, Mr. Lopez calls Mr. Jones “aloof” and “cold,” while Mr. Jones complains that Mr. Lopez is “pushy” and “aggressive.”

Such is the nature of “miscommunication.”  As Condon and Yousef explain, “something is communicated, even though it is not what was intended and often it is not what was thought to have been communicated”.

In much the same way that the two gentlemen above danced around the hidden cultural assumptions that frustrated their communication, so too, Al-Jazeera and American officials appear to be engaged in such a dance.  At varying times the two have gravitated toward each other with warm praise, only to recoil in confusion and frustration.

This chapter looks at the dance of intercultural miscommunication between Al-Jazeera and American public diplomacy. The analogy may be a bit of a stretch, but hopefully it will help expose some of the intercultural dynamics that frustrate the efforts of American officials to effectively communicate with the Arab public using the Arab television medium Al-Jazeera.

For text, please contact zaharna@american.edu