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Breeding Bin Ladens

How are U.S. efforts in the Muslim world fundamentally misguided?

April 23, 2007

How are U.S. efforts in the Muslim world fundamentally misguided?

Europe is conducting an experiment, one never attempted before in human history. For much of the last two and a half millennia, Europeans have fought and died in a struggle for mastery over the continent.

Caesars and Sun Kings. Napoleons and Habsburgs. Norsemen and Sultans. Nazis and Soviets. They all have wrought death and devastation in a futile effort to rule Europe's fertile lands.

Recognizing this senseless struggle's folly during the First World War, one man articulated a vision — and his concept slowly and steadily caught on.

The United States of America and Europe should stop using metaphors of war such as the "war of ideas" and the "battle for the hearts and minds," especially in official statements.

By casting the issue in terms of a conflict, the United States repels the very people it hopes to attract. The war metaphor frames Muslims either as enemies with ideas to be conquered — or as territory on a battlefield to be occupied and controlled.

That kind of language automatically forces people into one camp or another. Those Muslims who already have negative associations with American wars will be further repelled.

If a metaphor must be used, then employing metaphors of attraction and justice is wisest.

You might be thinking, "Isn't this just another type of spin doctoring, the very thing just criticized?" The difference is this: Language should be accurate.

Unless the European and U.S. governments actually perceive Muslims as enemies, or as inhabiting ideological territory to be conquered, the war metaphor is misleading, not to mention counterproductive.

If people are already ambivalent, then by forcing them to take sides in a with-us or against-us ultimatum, the United States makes itself less attractive.

Spin doctoring, on the other hand, is an attempt to convince people of something untrue, or a stretch from the truth. Public diplomacy campaigns that try to persuade Muslims that the United States supports individual freedoms, private enterprise or technological development reflect truths already known to most Muslims and therefore hold little value.

Campaigns that seek to persuade Muslims that the United States was acting solely in Muslims' best interests by invading and occupying Iraq are not believable — and therefore make the United States appear untrustworthy.

If such an assertion is true, Muslims ask, why would so little care have been taken to protect the Iraqi populace after the war? And why was the infrastructure not better defended? Why were cluster bombs used that killed and maimed children? And so on.

These are legitimate questions that Muslims — and others — pose. If they are confronted head-on and answered sincerely, then public diplomacy can be effective. If, instead, the government tries to put a positive spin on such issues, public diplomacy will surely fail.

Spain is pursuing a cross-cultural dialogue to defuse interfaith tensions. France is pushing a "Marshall Plan" for Muslim ghettos to lift Muslims out of poverty and avert new riots. Britain has launched a hearts-and-minds campaign for training moderate imams.

Despite the common problems facing Western Europe, no coordinated strategy yet exists at the EU level. Because the United States also has a clear security stake in the fate of Western Muslims, relevant officials and scholars — Muslim and secular — from the United States and EU nations with significant Muslim populations (Germany, France, Britain and Holland) should meet regularly to explore the linkages between disaffected Western Muslim populations and global/domestic terrorism.

They should examine Muslim identity and integration issues in democratic societies — and provide recommendations for engaging Western Muslims.

By comparing the experiences of various democratic governments, they should be able to offer practical solutions to address common threats, no matter the form, be it domestic unrest, crime or extremism.

By sharing solutions to common problems and by coordinating integration efforts, the United States and the EU will more effectively attract Muslims — and reduce the risk of Islamic extremism.

By investing energy and resources into integration strategies, the United States can send a clear and powerful message to Western Muslims and to the broader Muslim World. The message is that the United States is not the enemy of Islam — but instead values justice, one of Islam's highest virtues.

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Zachary Shore’s “Breeding Bin Ladens: America, Islam and the Future of Europe.” Copyright 2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.