Bridge the gap between West, Muslim world

October 15, 2004|By David Hoffman and Tara Sonenshine

WASHINGTON -- While a deeply divided nation and its candidates for president and vice president debate the issue of who or what is to blame for why America is hated in the world today, the real work of bridging the divide between the United States and its enemies goes undone.

Regardless of who becomes president in January, we have to communicate better with large parts of the world, particularly the Arab and Muslim world, where skepticism and disdain for the United States run deep. And we must figure out better ways to support citizens of the Arab world who need access to information about their lives and about the globe on which they live.

A recent report by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a bipartisan panel created by Congress to oversee how the U.S. government influences foreign audiences, is a step in the right direction. The report underscores a key reality: that access to information for citizens around the world fundamentally affects their lives as well as our own national security.

"International public opinion and understanding are key to the success of American foreign policy," the report says. It makes clear that U.S. attempts to win over the Muslim world through news broadcasts, cultural exchanges and public relations efforts have had limited success.

"Disparate missions and strategies among government agencies engaged in public diplomacy have resulted in inefficiencies in public diplomacy efforts," it says.

But perhaps the harshest criticism the report levels is against the state of cultural exchange programs, which have remained stagnant for many years. Funding for exchange programs went from $242 million in 1993 to $245 million in 2003, a contraction of funding in real terms. And so a vital tool for creating dialogue with other countries and building mutual understanding through shared experience is being underused at a critical time in our nation's history.

Where the report is disappointing is in its reliance on the concept of U.S. government broadcasting as a means of changing hearts and minds in the Arab world. Yes, international broadcasting such as the Voice of America is important and effective. But expanding the audience and resources for U.S. government-produced radio and television programming, as the report suggests, will not counter myths about the United States and provide alternatives to extremism in the Arab world.

More effective would be the expansion of independent media in the region -- locally, indigenously produced media that reflect the training and development of local, independent radio and television journalists in parts of the world that have only known state-run, government-owned media. That, coupled with greater exchanges, would reinforce the notion of a two-way street between the West and the Arab world.

The commission's report is only half the equation. We need to marry this report with the 2003 U.N. Development Program's Arab Human Development Report, which looks at the problem from the other side. What do Arab citizens need and want? What do they consider important tools for bridging the divide?

The U.N. report, written by distinguished Arab scholars, makes clear that from the Arab perspective, part of the problem is the limited development of knowledge, economics and information technology in that part of the world -- from the simple printing of books to Internet access. The report decries the high rates of illiteracy in the Arab world, estimating that about 65 million Arabs out of 280 million are illiterate. Fifty percent of the Arab population is women, but they make up 3 percent of the parliaments. The gross domestic product of the Arab world is akin to that of sub-Saharan Africa.

The real deficits in the Arab world -- lack of freedom, little or no female empowerment, economic hardship and controlled media -- impact how it relates to the West. The bottom line of the 2003 report is that Arab states need to close a growing "knowledge gap" by investing heavily in education and promotion of an open and intellectually rich society. Human development, as defined in the report, is "a process of enlarging choice." And the West can help in that process -- not simply by talking at the Arab world through public diplomacy, but by supporting efforts within the Arab world to improve the society.

Rather than perpetuate what has been a long-running argument over "why they hate us," let's get on with the urgent task of developing programs and policies to address the cultural and communication gaps between the Muslim world and the West -- gaps that ultimately produce hatred and intolerance. That might, in the end, make a real difference in global security.

David Hoffman is president of Internews, a nonprofit organization that supports open media worldwide. Tara Sonenshine is former deputy director of communications for the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.

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