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World: Information War Waged In Arab, Islamic Worlds

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The U.S. is dropping more than bombs on Afghanistan. Food packets and propaganda leaflets are falling from the sky, as well. It's all part of an effort to win the hearts and minds of not only Afghans but Muslims around the world -- many of whom are skeptical of the U.S.-led campaign, if not flatly opposed to it. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks at the U.S. propaganda campaign in the Muslim world.

Prague, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Time and again, officials in Washington and London have taken pains to deny that the current military campaign in Afghanistan is a war against Islam.

U.S. President George W. Bush has reiterated on numerous occasions that the campaign is targeting only the Taliban regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- not the Muslim world.

"Ours is a war against terrorism and evil, not against Islam. Americans respect and admire that religion of peace."

But U.S. and British officials admit that message doesn't seem to be getting through to people in the Muslim world. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is just one of many officials who has said more needs to be done to win the hearts and minds of Muslim nations.

"We have to do a better job. I mean, our cause is just. What we're doing is right, and we have absolutely nothing to hide. The other folks don't function in free systems. They don't function with free press. They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us."

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and the Muslim world. There is a need for us to communicate effectively."

With this in mind, the U.S. and Britain have launched a propaganda offensive on various fronts. That has so far included tens of thousands of emergency food packets dropped by air, as well as printed leaflets that contain messages scornful of the ruling Taliban.

Charlotte Beers, the U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, says the State Department is constantly monitoring Middle Eastern news about the U.S. and fashioning appropriate responses. Beers says she is working with the Ad Council, a non-profit organization that designs communications campaigns on issues of public concern.

Beers says the task is to develop public service announcements to be aired internationally that can "distill the values and virtues of American democracy and the many good things we have achieved on the international front."

Earlier this month, the Rendon Group, a public relations firm with offices in Boston and Washington, won a nearly $400,000 contract to aid in the U.S. information campaign. As Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth McClennan put it, the U.S. military needed a firm that could "help orient us to the challenge of communicating to a wide range of groups around the world."

But the allies are not only focused on sharpening their image at home. There is concern in Washington and London about how the Muslim world is covering the conflict, as well.

Attention has focused on Al-Jazeera, a popular Arab satellite network that has played a key role in covering the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Based in Qatar, Al-Jazeera prides itself on delivering a distinctly Arab perspective on the news while approaching Western-style standards of journalism. The network claims to have some 35 million viewers.

But the station raised hackles in the West when it aired a taped statement by suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden in response to the launch of air strikes on Afghanistan. From that point on, Western policymakers looked at Al-Jazeera as a dangerously biased adversary in the propaganda war.

The incident stirred heated debate in Washington over what voice, if any, should be given to the terrorists. Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the emir of Qatar to cut back the airing of bin Laden interviews on Al-Jazeera. The State Department put pressure on Voice of America not to air an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. RFE/RL also has issued internal guidelines on broadcasting the views of suspected terrorists.

Such pressure, however, has drawn fire from international press monitoring groups.

Robert Menard is the secretary-general of the Reporters Without Frontiers free-press advocacy group. "The U.S. is joining the many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, who have little respect for freedom of the press, in their criticism of [Al-Jazeera]." Menard called on Powell to stop putting pressure on the channel, saying "informational pluralism must be respected in all circumstances."

David Dash at the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) defends Al-Jazeera as a "bastion of freedom" in the Middle East. He dismisses charges that Al-Jazeera is being exploited as a propaganda tool by bin Laden.

"There are a lot of soapboxes. There is a potential difficulty in airing the views of such a man [as bin Laden], and I think that the media has to approach this very carefully. I don't think it's fair not to air his views. I mean, you cannot justify your own views if you refuse to have opposing views. The only way to win an argument is to actually enter into an argument. And the Western governments -- if they were to seek a total ban on bin Laden [or] anybody else who airs his views -- it would be difficult for the West to achieve a total justification of why they're involved."

Tawil Camille, an editor at the London-based Arab-language "Al-Hayat" daily, says one of the reasons the West is failing to make a better case in the Arab and Muslim world is due in part to very different perspectives on just what terrorism is.

"A lot of the people in the Middle East are skeptical because what is considered terrorism in America's eyes is not considered terrorism in the Middle East. I'll give you an example. Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon [are] not considered terrorism in the Middle East, whereas Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group in America."

Camille says Arab leaders need little convincing that bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network support terrorism. But that, he adds, does not hold for the average man on the street, who sees the military campaign as an assault on the entire Muslim world.

Camille says speculation that the U.S.-led campaign could eventually extend to other Muslim countries only stokes those beliefs.

"The masses in the Arab world do not believe for a second that this is only a war against terrorism, especially when you hear people in America saying that this is the first stage, [and that] the second stage will be other targets. And people speculate about Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Lebanon. It doesn't help."

Officials in the West are increasingly reaching out to speak to Arab audiences. Despite their initial criticisms of the network, Blair, Rumsfeld, and Powell have all granted interviews to Al-Jazeera.

But Jan Metzger, an analyst at Zurich's Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research, says such efforts can only go so far. He says the roots of anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world go back to what is seen as the West's open support of unpopular and undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, like the Shah of Iran and the Al-Saud royal dynasty in Saudi Arabia.

"Somehow the modern politicians have inherited the wrong politics of the past, when [corrupt] regimes were kept stable just for stabilization purposes, basically to have the oil access assured. And we also have to discuss in the long perspective why is it necessary that we have such a military involvement in the area. Why is that needed? It is probably because we rely so much on oil."

If Metzger's theory is correct, reversing the trend of anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds may take much more than a glossy public-relations campaign.