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Karen Hughes and American Muslims

How can U.S. Muslims improve the image of the United States in the Middle East and beyond?

October 10, 2005

How can U.S. Muslims improve the image of the United States in the Middle East and beyond?

Much remains to be done before U.S.-Muslim relations are likely to improve appreciably — but at least the first steps are being taken.

The dialogue between leading American Muslims and Karen Hughes, the new U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, has begun. However, the first meeting frequently revealed the perception gap between us and the government on many issues.

For example, Ambassador Hughes was surprised that Muslims thought that the United States continued to have the "same old policies" towards the Palestinian territories. She seemed genuinely amazed that American Muslims did not give President Bush sufficient credit for being the first U.S. president for openly calling for a Palestinian State.

American Muslims, on the other hand, were surprised that Ms. Hughes was not fully tuned into the extent of marginalization, demonization and alienation that they routinely experienced — particularly with regard to the U.S. government.

In her brief talk, Ms. Hughes referenced the four "E"s of her approach: education, empowerment, engagement and exchanges.

She recognized upfront that one of her main tasks would be to empower American Muslims so that they could become more effective ambassadors for Islam in America and for the United States in the Muslim world.

Her main message was contained in her opening statement: "You are the frontline in this [public diplomacy] because you are more credible than I am."

She suggested that American Muslims and her department should work together to (1) advance a positive vision of hope and opportunity to the Muslim world, (2) isolate and marginalize forces of intolerance and violence and (3) foster a sense of common intent and common purpose and common values.

Many Muslim leaders were a bit cynical going into the meeting. The Bush Administration has closed more doors than it has opened for them. But they were heartened when, during the meeting, Ms. Hughes expressed the need for government and civil society to do something that would make hate speech of any kind absolutely unforgettable.

She recognized that, like the radical ideologues in the Muslim world, there were American ideologues, too, who are preaching hatred against Islam and Muslims. Perhaps this issue can become a barometer to test how serious she is about improving relations.

Will she, and can she, do something to check the Islamophobic messages that consistently come from U.S. evangelical leaders, conservative talk shows and columnists — most of whom are supporters of the Bush Administration?

She must realize that these people directly undermine her own efforts at public diplomacy.

It is my sense that American Muslims — myself included — are eager to work with her. They understand the vital necessity of de-demonizing the United States in the eyes of Muslims worldwide — and making it safe from terrorism and extremism in the name of Islam.

On this issue, the U.S. national interest and American Muslim communal interests are identical. But the Bush Administration, the media and public opinion makers — particularly on the right — must understand that American Muslims cannot help de-demonize the United States until Islam and Muslims are de-demonized in the United States itself.

We cannot be allies and effective on the frontlines of the battle against extremism if our own government will not trust us and if our fellow countrymen wage a campaign of disempowerment by leveling false, unsubstantiated and often malicious accusations against mainstream American Muslims and their institutions.

American Muslims and their institutions deserve their fair share of criticism, but more for their incapacities and incoherence — rather than for anything sinister.

Ms. Hughes’ outreach to Muslims could potentially go a long way in undermining the campaign of disempowerment and contribute to confidence building.

Her message, however, is based on one fundamentally erroneous philosophical and strategic assumption. She seems to think that just countering the geopolitical ideology and radical rhetoric of the extremists will result in winning the hearts and minds of Muslims — and will reduce the anti-Americanism that is swelling the ranks of Jihadis everywhere. This assumption is a recipe for failure.

Yes, the Jihadis are wrong in claiming that Islam teaches violence and demands that every Muslim wage Jihad against all non-Muslims.

But this does not necessarily mean that U.S. policies of supporting dictators (in Pakistan and Uzbekistan), maintaining close ties with monarchs and emirs, attacking countries on false assumptions and bringing death and devastations to entire nations are right.

If she listens closely to Muslims and actually looks at the consequences of U.S. policies in the Muslim world, for example in Iraq, she will realize that the U.S. image in Muslim eyes will not be restored until there is a palpable change in U.S. policy.

It would be wise to set some achievable benchmarks for the new public diplomacy initiative in order to test its effectiveness.

Clearly, an overall decline in anti-Americanism and jihadism worldwide is the goal, but the United States can fail on that account even after making a genuine effort.

The visible presence of American Muslims in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy initiatives, such as the Middle East peace process, would be one indicator of a true U.S. desire to improve relations with Muslims.

However, American Muslims who participate in such efforts would have to enjoy real legitimacy in their communities. In other words, they cannot be mere puppets or, worse, political opportunists like Iraq's Ahmed Chalabi.

This would send the message that the United States is willing to work with Muslims and trusts them. If the United States will not trust Muslims, Muslims will not trust the United States.

Secondly, an important and measurable test of a shift in U.S. policy would be how the United States responds to renewed settlement activity by Israel in the West Bank.

If Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon goes ahead with the enlargement and expansion of settlements with U.S. financial, political and moral support, then all other endeavors to win Muslims hearts and minds may seem Machiavellian — and perhaps even disingenuous.

In short, U.S. policies must change — and if Ms. Hughes can communicate that this change is genuine, not cosmetic, then we will see some positive progress.

Finally, the Bush Administration must understand that public diplomacy is not the sole responsibility of Ms. Hughes and her team in the State Department.

Public diplomacy concerns should underpin how every agency — especially the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense — as well as the U.S. media and civil society leaders conduct business with the Muslim world.