Muhammad Ayish
The National
February 16, 2009 - 1:00am

Last month’s inauguration of US President Barack Obama has sent a gripping sense of anticipation throughout the Arab region where a potential shift in how America sees its image around the world is being received with optimism. We have come to learn that improving the United States’s image among Muslim populations in particular has topped the list of urgent issues requiring the attention of President Obama and Congress.

Mr Obama’s goodwill overtures toward Muslim countries, his choice of Al Arabiya television channel for his first-ever foreign media interview, and his prompt dispatch of George Mitchell to the Middle East in the aftermath of the Gaza conflict do reinforce the belief that the face and substance of American policies in the Arab region are due for some change.

Of course, the institution of credible American foreign policy traditions in the Arab World is not just an issue of realpolitik. It also bears on another corollary aspect of American relations with the region: its public diplomacy. Over the past five decades, the practice of US public diplomacy in the Middle East was carried out through exchange programmes, visits, and broadcast media but recently, there has been a strong inclination to harness the power of the virtual world in communicating with Arabs and Muslims outside official diplomatic channels. The “Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” project, carried out by Joshua Fouts and Rita King of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs has been the most recent initiative with an immense public diplomacy potential. The two researchers conclude that “engaging with people in virtual worlds who self-identify as Muslim can be part of a broader public diplomacy strategy to foster inclusive perspectives on religion, society and coexistence”.

When viewed in the context of the currently rising optimism about the US handling of Middle East issues, a project of this calibre suggests that US public diplomacy in Muslim countries is developing new approaches to Arab-Islamic culture. The project’s use of Second Life virtual experiences, where internet users can interact with each other through avatars to engage in intercultural dialogue, is indeed a pioneering initiative. It may enable foreign policymakers and practitioners, corporations, NGOs and ordinary people to both understand and appreciate the nature of the Islamic faith and the communicative power of virtual space in promoting religious dialogue.

But as the experience of the past five decades suggests, the battle for hearts and minds in this region can never be solely won through innovative communication techniques and captivating rhetoric, but rather through a closer alignment between mass-mediated discourse and official policy orientations. I believe the translation of Mr Obama’s overtures to Muslim nations into sound policies more than the development of Second-Life-style experiences, could furnish the solid foundations for successful public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy, providing for government communications with people in other countries outside official diplomatic channels, is a truly American invention. According to one definition, public diplomacy seeks “to understand, inform, engage and influence global audiences, reaching beyond foreign governments to promote greater appreciation and understanding of society, culture, institutions, values and policies”. No nation on earth has ever invested so much in establishing and running massive public diplomacy operations as the United States. And belief in the power of media to reverse entrenched political and social convictions has never been as deeply ingrained as among American foreign policy-making institutions.

I remember going to Washington in the mid 1980s to collect data for my doctoral degree on the public diplomacy role of the Voice of America Arabic Service. It was intriguing to hear the Arabic Service staff talk about the power of radio to stave off communist threats in the Middle East in the Cold War era. Even in the early 1990s, as US broadcasting services were coming under tighter congressional scrutiny, it was normal to hear officials alluding to the role of broadcast services like Radio Free Europe in bringing about the demise of the former Soviet empire.

In this part of the world, we see the Obama era as an opportunity to induce new transitions in US public diplomacy in Muslim societies. The new administration has already generated rising expectations about mending fences with Muslim countries. We have come to learn from recent history that more balanced and fair US foreign policies are the prime forces that can decide the outcome of the raging hearts and minds battle. The conduct of public diplomacy, whether through visits, exchanges or media broadcasting services like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra Television or through Second Life and other virtual spaces, is likely to play a supportive role for sound policy orientations that resonate with the region’s concerns and ambitions.

These channels by themselves can never be credible substitutes for constructive political engagements that genuinely bear on the living experiences of people on both sides of the divide. It is in this context that US public diplomacy in the Obama era faces its most critical challenge.


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