R.S. ZAHARNA       Home    Classes      Weekend Program     Research         Resources


U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations
February 27, 2003

American Public Diplomacy and the Islamic and Arab World:

R.S. Zaharna
American University

Thank you Senator Lugar and distinguished members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to be here today.  Mr. Chairman, your skillful leadership and foresight is reflected in your appreciation of the seriousness of American public diplomacy in the Muslim world, especially given the possibility of U.S. military action in the region.

 Mr. Chairman, I have submitted my testimony for the record. In addressing the topic, I wish to focus my observations not in terms of religion, but rather culture. Culture shapes how religion is viewed and practiced, and it is culture that shapes communication as well. I would like to highlight some issues or concerns of American public diplomacy and how it may be affected by U.S. military action. I am particularly interested in how American public diplomacy can be proactive.

 First, I am concern that American public diplomacy appears to be backfiring and doing more of the same may hurt us more than help us.
 Since September 11, 2001, America has turned up the volume of American public diplomacy with high profile, aggressive initiatives in the Arab and Muslim world. Under-Secretary of State Charlotte Beers outlined many of these initiatives earlier.

 With such an intensive and concerted effort, one would expect positive results. Instead, support for America has declined and anti-Americanism has grown.
 The question is: Why?

 I have addressed some of the reasons in my written statement.

 However, the point I wish to make is that until we know what we are doing wrong, doing more of the same may hurt, rather than help us.
 I am not advocating American silence, but I am suggesting turning down the volume until we figure out how to achieve more positive results.

 Second, American public diplomacy appears to be focusing too much on message and image-building instead relationship building.  Most Americans tend to think of communication in terms of sending a message. American public diplomacy has focused on getting America's message out, without considering how it's being perceived.  This is the fundamental problem with one-way communication or monologues.

America can strengthen its communication with the Arab and Muslim world by thinking how it can build relationships, instead of relay messages.
In the Arab world, communication is primarily about building relationships -- cultivating, solidifying, and defining relationships. American executives often complain that they must spend endless hours, some days having coffee or tea before they can start doing business. This is not because Arabs like coffee, but because relationships are the cornerstone of most activities in this part of the world.

 Instead of speaking AT the people in the Arab and Muslim world, we need to speak WITH them. We need dialogue.

 Third, American public diplomacy appears to be focusing too much on what we say abroad and not on what we do at home.

 When people talk about American public diplomacy they usually focus on the State Department, White House or Pentagon. It is easy to forget in today's CNN world of instantaneous, global communication what we, and I mean all Americans, say or do right here in America is heard around the globe.
 This is both good and bad.  For example, the derogatory statements by prominent American religious leaders quickly spread like wild fire throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  President Bush condemned some of the comments. A few of the leaders apologized.  Nevertheless, the damage was already done. America’s religious tolerance became suspect.

 On the positive side, Congress has a tremendous role to play.  As the face of the America people, all eyes are on you. You do not have to go to the Middle East to positively impact American public diplomacy there. Just by visiting a mosque in your district, or holding a town meeting on Iraq, or hosting an inter-faith dinner, or attending an Arab or Muslim community event -- you will be sending a powerful message that speaks volumes about American tolerance, diversity and democracy.

  My final concern is how the possibility of American military action and a continued military presence in Iraq may impact American public diplomacy. The American military will likely become the new face of American public diplomacy -- overshadowing all other efforts. The interaction between our soldiers and the local people will be the medium as well as the message.

 The American military enters with a distinct disadvantage. Already the media has spoken extensively about an American “military occupation” and setting up “a civil administration.”  Americans associates these terms with Japan and Germany and their rise as economic giants. In the Arab and Muslim world, these terms are associated with Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are highly negative.  We need to be aware of this.

 The American military can overcome this disadvantage through heightened cultural awareness and symbolic gestures that how respect for the culture of the local people.  American troops need cross-cultural training.  The more they know about how to navigate the cultural mine fields, the safer they -- and the local people -- will be. Also, the better they will be able to put the best face possible on American public diplomacy in the Muslim world.
 Thank you, Sir. I look forward to answering questions.