The problem of American propaganda in the Muslim world

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In parallel with its ubiquitous "war on terror," the US government has launched a propaganda war in the Arab world, ostensibly to project a kinder, gentler, more "fun" image of the US. Utilizing a variety of media, the efforts are linked by a common goal: to "win the hearts and minds" of Arabs and Muslims to the American way of seeing the world.

One of the first efforts was a monthly Arabic-language magazine called Hi, aimed at Arab youth, with slick images and simplistic stories intended to advance the cause of "American culture" among the 18-to-35 age-range. It is produced, with an accompanying website, by a private company hired by the US state department. The stated goal of the magazine is to improve Arab perceptions of America. According to a company spokesperson, "It’s designed to engage people in that generation in a constructive, interactive dialogue on many aspects of American society." The first several issues highlighted Arab Americans, such as Norah Jones and Tony Shalhoub, who have "made it big" in the American entertainment industries. They also carried stories about the latest sports scores and fashion fads, which are deemed to be "relevant to younger generations everywhere around the world." The Hi website has interactive sections with answers to commonly asked questions about the US, and polls about things like Arab Superstars (a version of American Idol, a programme that showcases new pop-singers).

Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, have condemned the programme as "unethical," calling on local parties to "put an end to this sad comedy," which "facilitates the culture of globalization led by America to change the cultural identity of the people." Despite this, the Americans still seem confident that young Arabs will be attracted and distracted by this and similar initiatives.

The US state department initially invested more than $4 million to launch Hi, and expects to subsidize the magazine for the same amount each year for several years, with the goal of producing 50,000 copies every month, although it is hoped that advertising revenues will eventually offset the cost. The magazine sells for the equivalent of US$2 throughout the Arab world, as well as in Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Initial sales have been low, but American propaganda experts have high expectations. Although most of the content is produced by Arabs living in the US, all editorial decisions are made by the US state department.

Deputy spokesman Philip Reeker outlined the long-term strategy of Hi: it is "not designed to create or change opinions immediately, but to develop broader understandings, to have a dialogue which will take place over years, over decades and, indeed, over generations." It avoids all discussion of foreign policy, its editors and producers claiming that the target-audiences are not interested in politics. The real reason is probably that American policy is indefensible except on grounds of colonialism and imperialism. The magazine is often criticized for assuming that young Arabs are mindless consumers, and for not mentioning the issues that are important in the Arab world, such as the occupations of Palestine and Iraq. Yet American officials are optimistic. "We don’t expect people to pick up a copy and instantly love the United States," an American diplomat has said; "we want them to read it and gradually develop an appreciation for who and what we are."

This ever-present optimism is also apparent in the way US officials discuss their efforts. The disastrous American policy in the region is being used by Washington to procure more funds from the US Congress. Margaret Tutwiler, under-secretary of state for public diplomacy (i.e. minister of propaganda) told Congress that because of US policy in the region, "it will take many years of hard, focused work" to reclaim America’s image in the world. The general method is typical of American policy, public and private: identify a problem, find a way to make money from it, and then develop a strategy to divert attention away from the original problem. Yet American policy-makers still seem to be living in and fighting the Cold War, when it was simply a matter of dropping a few leaflets on an information-starved "third world" country, its supposedly backward "natives" being ready for whatever manipulation came their way.

The US also seems to think that shaping Muslims’ attitudes is like selling a product, so they have hired high-priced advertising experts. One such expert is Charlotte Beers, former head of Ogilvy Mather, one of the largest advertising firms in the world, whom the US state department hired in 2001 to build the image of America the way she would build a brand-name; the products she had to sell were the American "belief system" and American "values." Her contribution included a series of slick television commercials that became the object of public ridicule. Undaunted, in 2002 the US government launched Radio Sawa, whose intention was to communicate "directly in Arabic with the people of the Middle East by radio," to change the Arabs’ perceptions about America. The station features non-stop American and Arab pop-songs, interspersed with crude and simplistic news bulletins. The same pattern was followed in June 2003, when a Congressional panel concluded that US policy was the main cause of anti-Americanism in the world, but made no recommendations for changing that policy. Instead, still more funding was procured to expand propaganda efforts.

There is an old ploy used by police officers who are interrogating a suspect, known as the "good cop, bad cop" routine. Basically, two policemen are in the room with the suspect, and one –” the bad cop –” uses verbal and physical abuse on the suspect, while the other –” the good cop –” occasionally intervenes to curb his colleague’s abuse and will even offer the prisoner food and drink at times. The idea is to convince the prisoner that it is in his best interest to deal with the "good cop", else he will be turned over to the "bad cop." Part of the good-cop/bad-cop style of American propaganda is to prevent Arab journalists from covering regional news, while offering slick and superficial American substitutes.

The bad-cop side of American propaganda is most evident in Iraq, where American occupation forces have consistently attacked, arrested, abused and even murdered Arab journalists for regional satellite-stations such as al-Jazeera. In fact, as part of the stated conditions for the US to end the siege of Falluja in April, the American occupation authorities demanded that al-Jazeera journalists leave the city. More recently, the station has been accused by General Mark Kimmit, the occupation forces commander, of offering a "series of lies" about US attacks on Falluja.

The Americans, it appears, cannot tolerate any images or stories that interfere with their supposedly overarching control of information about their role in the world. At times this is made painfully obvious. When the US announced a "ceasefire" in Falluja (which is an Israeli tactic used to curb criticism), al-Jazeera interviewed General Kimmitt live by phone; he insisted that a unilateral ceasefire was in place. As he spoke, al-Jazeera simultaneously broadcast pictures of American F-16 fighter-jets bombing residential neighborhoods in Falluja. It is because of instances such as this, exposing American propaganda as a web of lies, that the US tries to shut down every alternative source, in order to control information and the conclusions that follow from it.

A year earlier, in April 2003, just before US tanks rolled into Baghdad, US invading forces targeted the offices of al-Jazeera in the city, killing Tarik Ayyoub, a journalist. Such attempts to silence al-Jazeera have continued in various ways since then. Last October the Emir of Qatar, who owns a controlling interest in the station, was pressured by the Americans to cease what the US called "anti-American" coverage. Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of war, even alleged in November that al-Jazeera was cooperating with Iraqi resistance forces. During the same month the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council banned another Arab station, al-Arabiya, from broadcasting news from Iraq. In March hackers sabotaged Arab newsagency websites after they showed pictures of dead US soldiers and prisoners. The bureau offices of Abu Dhabi TV in Iraq have been hit with US missiles.

Many similar examples can easily be found. Since the beginning of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq the Americans have killed 19 journalists, according to a report issued by the International Press Institute in March; these crimes include the murder of a Reuters cameraman in Baghdad last August. In addition to murdering journalists, the Americans have shut down local print media, such as al-Hawzah newspaper, published by Muqtada Sadr. In January American soldiers arrested three Iraqi journalists working for Reuters, beat and abused them, and held them near Falluja for several days. The Americans are working very hard to silence all sources other than the Pentagon; the US continues to make a variety of efforts to combat and counter the "hateful propaganda" of local Arabic-language media.

Early this year, the US Congress approved funding for al-Hurrah, an American-produced satellite television-station designed to broadcast news from Washington to the Middle East. This name means "the free one," with connotations in Arabic of irresponsible freedom. Advertisements for al-Hurrah use imagery to suggest that it is intended to bring Arabs "out of the darkness" in which they supposedly live, and "into the light of truth," in this case the light being that of an American version of truth. The station began to broadcast in February, and is gradually moving to a 24-hour format slated to "bring news, talk shows, and documentaries to 22 countries across the Middle East." Bush himself launched al-Hurrah, as its first high-profile on-air guest; he claimed that "We have not been in Iraq for one year and already there has been enormous progress" and that "a free society has started to float to the surface."

Congress has spent US$62 million to launch the channel, with another $40 million for a special edition broadcast only to Iraq. Its producers pride themselves on having assembled a carefully selected group of anchors, and claim that they will present a "wider range of stories" than al-Hurrah’s Arab competitors. This wider range includes stories about "alternative lifestyles," such as gay and lesbian ‘marriages,’ for which the station broadcast images of gay men and women kissing each other after being ‘married’ in San Francisco recently. Shaykh al-Khudayri, a Saudi scholar and judge at the grand Islamic court in Riyadh, issued a fatwa in March to forbid Muslims to watch al-Hurrah, calling it a "source of corruption" designed to "fight Islam" and "support American hegemony."

Al-Hurrah also relies heavily on images of "good cop" US soldiers playing football with Iraqi teenagers, and handing out candy to Iraqi children. The channel’s upbeat programming implies that life has improved for Iraqis since the American invasion, with stories about new internet cafes (for instance) opening under US occupation. What the channel omits to mention is that recently American soldiers themselves have been banned from using email, after the prisoner-abuse scandal revealed that pornographic pictures had been circulating among troops and their friends for months before. Despite growing criticism, the "good cops" and "bad cops" have continued their efforts to propagandise the region. As Ramzy Baroud, an Arab journalist, says, the US handles the region with "a combination of extreme militancy, disregard of the individual and [of the] collective aspirations of Arab peoples, and obnoxious tactics… to redeem its sins."

Since being launched al-Hurrah has been criticised by Arab media scholars, including many in the US. Saad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University, has noted that the quality of al-Hurrah is substandard, and that the reporters’ grasp of the Arabic language (which, as he points out, is absolutely essential for reaching Arab audiences) is weak. In this respect it is similar to certain Lebanese channels, such as LBC and Mustaqbal, which often have on their programmes guests who speak colloquial Arabic or an English-Arabic hybrid. This seems to be an attempt to reach the "Arab street", without understanding an important difference between that and the modern "youth scene" in Western countries: in Arab countries, even where colloquial and local dialects are commonly spoken (which is practically everywhere), respect for and appreciation of both classical and modern-standard forms of the Arabic language survive to a much greater extent than in English-speaking countries for the English of Milton, Shakespeare, Donne and other great writers that those Western countries have produced.

Abu Khalil has also noticed that on al-Hurrah people are often cut off when they stray onto awkward subjects such as American policies and the US’s relations with Arab regimes. He suggests that al-Hurrah only seems progressive when compared with the former state-controlled media, but that in the past decade the Arab world has moved beyond those limited perspectives. In other words, al-Hurrah is presenting itself as something new against a straw man that was toppled long ago. "At the heart of American propaganda efforts," Abu Khalil continues, "is a fundamental insult to the intelligence… of the Arab people. The United States government wants to be able to bomb… Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere,… while trying by the silly propaganda of Radio Sawa and al-Hurrah TV to capture the imagination and the sympathy of the Arab people."

Although many of his points are important, Abu Khalil is missing a key factor. While the Americans are murdering and otherwise silencing Arab journalists whom mature viewers in the Arab countries rely upon and trust, they are simultaneously targeting the Arab youth with "fun" propaganda, which targets those who are already vulnerable to American silliness. For example, a majority of 15-to-25-year-olds in Lebanon tune into Star Academy, which recently brought together 16 young men and women from several Arab countries to live together under one roof, with details of their lives being broadcast live all 24 hours of every day, in mimickry of American "reality TV" programmes. Voting for their favourite ‘star’ is supposed to give Arab audiences a sense of democratic participation, while their largely undemocratic US-backed governments remain indifferent to their concerns. In a way the US has written off mature audiences, in the hope that they can build pro-US feeling by developing younger and more style-oriented audiences, instead of converting older, more discriminating viewers, which is much more difficult, indeed next to impossible.

Another American-Arab, Jamal Dajani, has also been outspoken against al-Hurrah. He is the producer of the daily Mosaic show on Link TV in the US, which monitors and presents selected regional views to American audiences from more than 30 Arab television-networks. Dajani notes that al-Hurrah rushed into heavy-handed and facile justification of American policies in the region without first building an audience base. So it looks like a panicky reaction to the growing realization in the Arabic-speaking world that there is more to the broadcast media than simplistic propaganda, although the Americans seem to be unable to move beyond that vision. Dajani interviewed a number of people in the Arab world about al-Hurrah, and found a general sense of distrust and even disdain. He spoke to Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, who noted that, in the crowded mediascape of Arab-language broadcasting, al-Hurrah will have a hard time breaking through. Viewers from the "Arab street" consistently told Dajani that al-Hurrah promotes "American freedom" above the kinds of freedom that are meaningful in the Arab world.

Whatever the Arabs’ responses to al-Hurrah may be, they seem to be limited to young, educated and middle-class audiences in urban metropoles of the Arab world. Al-Hurrah remains largely unknown in outlying towns and villages, where people mostly watch terrestrial television, not satellite. Most Arabs, outside the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms, cannot afford the increasingly expensive privatised satellite channels, nor the equipment for them.

All channels, whatever their point of view, are highly sophisticated and visually stimulating productions. Over 130 different networks currently broadcast on ArabSat and NileSat, the two main satellite-providers in the region. A US state department poll of "urban Iraqis" found that 62 percent watch Iraqi terrestrial television, but only 26 percent watch foreign televsion via satellite, while 5 percent or less rely on local newspapers and radio for their "media diet"; similar patterns are thought to obtain in other Arab countries. At the same time what was once Saddam TV has become American TV. Flashy broadcast media have steadily been replacing more sedate sources of news, such as reading, radio and discussion. Audiences are becoming more passive.

An important distinction that applies to the Arab world is that television and radio, along with reading, whatever the content, are communal experiences, whereas the Americans are relying on the selfish individualism of their own culture to try to win viewers and listeners in other cultures. All stations, whatever their outlook, have increasingly adopted American media conventions; that is the over-arching propaganda, above and beyond the content of individual channels.

Another bizarre feature of the ongoing American effort to control the Arab media (and hence Arab minds) is that the US constantly chastises "state-sponsored" television in the region, while pretending to promote its own model of corporate-sponsored television, yet the US government is spending millions of dollars on its own brand of state-sponsored television. But the effort seems to be wasted; the reaction to al-Hurrah has been virtually uniform: rejection of American propaganda, such as the American insistence on linking all civilian deaths in Iraq to "support for Saddam" in one way or another. The ultimate irony is that the Americans are also the protectors of the Saudi royal family, which controls or indirectly influences much of the press and media in the region, and which, at home, has one of the worst records of political participation and media freedom in the world. For the Americans to be perceived as anything but hypocrites and opportunists, they will have to redress these gross regional political imbalances. No amount of silly gimmickry can achieve that.

They may have formulated a critical response to American propaganda, but few commentators have considered the kind or degree of its success. Rule one of advertising and public relations is that, whatever the critics say, if the customer buys the product then the advertisements are worth the effort. Maybe no one has yet made a systematic study of this, but there is evidence available to those who are willing and able to collate and interpret it. A quick survey of Arab satellite-television channels suggests that someone is buying the American line; even if it is only media-bureaucrats being enticed into Americanizing their programming, the audiences for these channels are as large as ever. Some stations have shifted their content to an almost entirely American-oriented fare (all translated into Arabic, of course).

Local newspapers in many Arab capitals also attest to the appeal of propaganda, again even if only to intimidated or bribed editors. For example, when MBC, an Arabic-language television-channel based in Dubai, was set to run an Arabic translation of Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s documentary on American gun-violence, several Arabic-language newspapers ran a reprint of an article that had appeared in a rightwing British newspaper, claiming that Moore had exaggerated the prevalence of violence in the US. Soon the mantra of Moore’s alleged exaggeration could be heard on the street, in universities and elsewhere; the sole source seemed to be this questionable article. Moore himself has eloquently answered the claims of exaggeration on his own website (www.michael-moore.com), with full documentation not only of the claims but also of the sources of the stories he used in his film, and books. But the propaganda against Moore has had some success, which is likely to grow as the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, his controversial new film, approaches. As long as this issue –” how and why propaganda works when it does (or even how it works in some ways even as it fails in others)–” is not addressed, to pick apart those efforts from a moral higher ground is simply an intellectual exercise in futility, or at least in irrelevance.

With the US consistently using its veto-power in the UN to support Israel, it should be obvious to all whom the US really cares about in the Middle East. Yet American policy-makers, corporations and (sometimes) well-meaning but naive Arab Americans continue to respond to this realization with more propaganda, with mixed results, from reports that official propaganda is a failure to new initiatives. It is clear that, whatever their impact, the Americans are deluded into believing that flashy words and gimmicky graphics will speak louder than their actions.

But why do Americans always feel they need to "enlighten" the rest of the world with their allegedly superior "values"? No matter how clever the Americans get with their propaganda, it is mostly American policies that irk Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. The US government seems utterly ignorant and unaware –” or perhaps is in deep denial –” of what it really needs to do to "improve its image" in the Arab world, as well as in the rest of the Muslim world. It is now common knowledge that what really matters to the Arab and Muslim peoples is not images and public-relations campaigns but the policies of the US government that directly affect local lives and communities, beginning with duplicitous standards on the direct Israeli and American occupations (of Palestine and Iraq respectively), as well as the support of favoured dictators.

Americans themselves are probably the most propagandised people in the world, with little or no sense of political and social realities in the rest of the world; indeed, even with little insight into such situations in their own country. Yet even they are gradually beginning to "figure out the game". Charles Hartick, an American viewer of Link TV, responded to a question about whether or not the US government should spend tens of millions of dollars on al-Hurrah by saying, "I feel it’s wrong that we’re spending US$62 million broadcasting Arab language programming to the Arab world, because they have satellite TV just like we have and they have access to the world news, and they can clearly see that what we’re doing is just propaganda, and we’re trying to mollify them over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Until we can straighten out our own problems at home, we ought to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries."

Similarly, in a speech in April, American opposition leader Ralph Nader said, "the conventional Pentagon budget is $400 billion and rising and there are other departments such as the Department of Energy, in the nuclear weapons area. Most of the budget was built because of the Soviet Union’s risk. There’s no more Soviet Union. It was partially amassed because of communist China. Communist China is rapidly converting criminal communism into criminal capitalism. They’re not interested in threatening us, they want to sell to us. So why the $400 billion plus? Why the diversion from school kids and millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance? And people who want their clinics and schools and public transit built and repaired? Why no money for inner cities? Why no money for our crumbling public works, why no money for libraries, for clinics? Why no money for the necessities of the American people?"

A large part of the problem is that Washington still clings to the delusion that whatever is good for US business and national security is good for the rest of the world. This has been behind American foreign policy for several decades, and has invariably generated one form of militarism or another. We need to ask a few simple questions: Why does the US government need to spend so much of its taxpayers’ money to "improve its image" in the Arab world? How has that image come to "need improvement"? Could it be that US government officials and their Zionist and corporate proxies have declared war on Arab and Muslim societies, claiming that they "need reform"? But who will reform the US? Would the US allow, say, an Iranian state-funded or Libyan state-funded satellite television-channel to propagandise Americans, with the purpose of "reforming" US society or "improving" their own images in America?

Maybe it is a sign of the times, that images are more important than actions, at least in the minds of close-minded American officials, who are becoming so desperate that their "new world order" is taking on a quite malevolent odour of old-world savagery. American actions in the world (like everyone else’s) always speak for themselves; no propaganda at all, of any sort, can ever subsume that simple fact.

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