Skip to content

Propaganda will not Sway the Arab street

Article by Mark Leonard and Conrad Smewing

September 15, 2006

As diplomacy runs out of time and the carrier battle groups sail into position, western governments are desperate to win over the Arab street. The greatest fear is that a conflict in Iraq will set the Middle East in flames. But so far western efforts at “public diplomacy” have not worked. Arabic pop radio stations and slick advertisements of happy Muslims in the US have fallen on deaf ears. More of the same public diplomacy will lead to more of the same bemused and incredulous responses. Until the west has the right diagnosis of the problem, it will be impossible to make any difference.

The starting-point for western public diplomacy has been to assume that if people in the Middle East do not like us, it is because they do not know us well enough. President George W. Bush, when asked about hostility in the Arab world, declared: “I just can’t believe it. I know how good we are and we’ve got to do a better job of making our case.” But the sentiment of people in the region is more subtle. They know America and many want to live there: the United Nations has reported that 51 per cent of young Arabs want to emigrate to the west.

In fact, there are three wellsprings of hostility that need to be dealt with together if any progress is to be achieved. First, there is western foreign policy, particularly towards Israel and Palestine. Hostility will be a constant until some progress is made on the peace process and on double standards in human rights and democracy.

The Faustian bargain of political and military support for autocratic regimes in exchange for free access to oil is no longer sustainable; what was seen as a bolster to regional stability is now clearly a source of hostility and terror.

But even if policies do change, no one will believe it unless we deal with the other two sources of hostility. Most pernicious is the pervasive sense that western policy is motivated by a hatred or fear of Muslims. In Arab eyes, the attempt to link Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden reads like a racist conspiracy theory. An opinion poll last year showed that Lebanese, Indonesians, Turks and Iranians were all more favourable about Americans than Americans were about them. An ICM survey in October 2001 found that one in four Britons saw Islam as “a threat to western values”.

Arab fear of western Islamophobia is so strong that even when western governments do positive things, they are presented as a threat. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram claimed that US humanitarian food aid to Afghanistan was genetically modified and had been deliberately dropped in heavily landmined areas.

The solution is to get away from talk of civilisations. When the west becomes obsessed with the question of “why do they hate us?” and tries to fight it with public diplomacy campaigns based around dialogue between civilisations, it simply adds to the sense of “us versus them”. Instead of broadcasting adverts about how nice “we” are to Muslims, we should show that those categories are meaningless.

Greater awareness of the west’s pluralism (its divisions on Iraq, for example) and of its Muslim communities would help to challenge the insidious logic of a clash between two monolithic civilisations. A BBC Arabic television service could deliver these discussions to large audiences in the region. Equally, we should tackle misperceptions of Islam in western countries. Asking Arab civil society to help western schools to combat ignorance would be a powerful symbolic response. Also, western governments should come down hard on those who misrepresent Islam – whether a television evangelist describing the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist or a journalist warning of a “fifth column” among British Muslims.

Last, public diplomacy will not get very far if it is just about firefighting. One reason hostility towards the west is so strong is that people living amid poverty, high unemployment and political repression do not have the freedom to protest about problems close to home. Discontent is deflected toward the west. This means that economic development and political reform are the only way to dispel hostility in the long term.

It has been suggested that a “new Marshall Plan” to transform the Middle East is required. In fact, what is needed is a kind of “mirror of the Marshall Plan”. The injection of US capital into postwar Europe was so successful because it catalysed the human capital that was already there. Europe had skilled workers and managers and strong educational, political and judicial institutions but it did not have the factories and infrastructure. According to the UN development programme, the required catalyst in the Middle East is not cash but the institutional and educational reform needed to build and deploy the region’s human capital.

The west should forget propaganda. It does not need to give vast sums of aid. Instead it should help civil society. Linking people and institutions with potential reformers in the region allows the Middle East to progress along its own path and is the best antidote to mistrust and hatred.

If we are to avoid the nightmare scenario, it is time to think big and involve millions of people across the region in people-to-people diplomacy rather than oiling the wheels of bilateral relations among authoritarian regimes.

The writers are authors of Public Diplomacy in the Middle East

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre