Winning Muslim Hearts and Minds for the US

Gulf News, October 7, 2005

The Bush administration is finally taking the task of communicating with the Muslim world seriously.

The US President George W. Bush has appointed his trusted counsel and fellow Texan, Karen Hughes, as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Although Hughes has little exposure to the Muslim world, or for that matter to the world beyond the United States, she has good political instincts and the ear of the president.

These qualities make her more qualified to explore a fresh approach in building bridges than seasoned diplomats with fixed ideas.

Hughes will look at the problem America faces in explaining its policies and actions to the international community, especially its 1.4 billion Muslims, and the remedies she suggests will immediately get attention from America’s all powerful president.

That is more than the US has been able to achieve in the field of public diplomacy over the last several decades.

Hughes began her stint as public diplomacy czar with a “listening tour” of several Muslim countries. She met with “opinion leaders”, held a town hall meeting with women in Saudi Arabia and impressed almost everyone she met with her desire to listen and learn.

Serious mission

The conservative US publication, The Weekly Standard, described her as “Karen of Arabia” for her ability to present herself as an ordinary American mother engaged in people-to-people relations and not as a high-ranking official on a serious mission.

“I go as an official of the US government, but I’m also a mom, a working mom,” she reportedly told reporters on the flight from Washington to Cairo. She repeated that theme throughout her tour.

At one point she said, “I still have to pinch myself a little when I am sitting in a meeting with the king [of Saudi Arabia] and realise that I’m there representing our country.”

Such humility is unusual in high-ranking officials of any country, let alone the world’s sole superpower. Even if it was scripted, it probably endeared Hughes to her audiences.

But winning hearts and minds for America requires a process, not just the event of Hughes’s listening tour. As she initiates that process, Hughes should be careful not to let the ruling elites of the Muslim world control her understanding of their people and their views of the United States.

Over the years, just as the average Muslim man or woman has been persuaded to turn against America, a class of rulers, diplomats, global bankers and media specialists has been produced that lives off its role as the intermediaries between the United States and the “backward and complicated” Muslim people.

These intermediaries between America and the Muslim world live good lives, often at Uncle Sam’s expense. They also come up with reasons why US foreign policy, and not the failures of Muslim rulers, is somehow to blame for global Muslim decline.

Thus, lack of American support of the Palestinians or the Kashmiris, Moros and Chechens has been the centrepiece of Muslim public discourse over the last several decades rather than the low human development indicators resulting from lack of investment in education and healthcare.

No one doubts widespread anti-Americanism in Muslim countries but it may not be as deep-rooted a sentiment as is sometimes believed. It is often nurtured by the very elites that the United States cultivates.

These elites rent out their support to US policies in return for economic and military aid and anti-Americanism among the people is sometimes an instrument of policy for seeking higher rent for the rulers’ services on behalf of America.

The Musharrafs and Mubaraks of this world appear more appealing as allies to American policy makers when these rulers are seen as controlling difficult populations that passionately hate the United States.

Ordinary Muslims are not totally unresponsive to America’s positive actions or policies as is sometimes suggested.

Significant US military sales to the Suharto regime in Indonesia, for example, did not win America much support but, according to polling data released by Ken Ballen of Terror Free Tomorrow, humanitarian assistance after the tsunami dented anti-Americanism among grateful Indonesian Muslims.


Successive US administrations have ignored the Muslim Street, being content instead to depend upon friendly potentates and dictators. But such dependence also makes the US vulnerable to manipulation by its allies.

The new US public diplomacy should not allow itself to be derailed by the over-simplification that America would be liked much more if only the world knew its good intentions. Nor should it remain a prisoner of the deviousness of America’s authoritarian allies.

The most important thing is to identify cultural intermediaries and interlocutors who are as serious about fighting anti-Americanism in the Muslim world as Hughes herself.

Surely, the beneficiaries of the gulf between the US and the world’s Muslims those who profit from US aid to stabilise “unstable” countries would not want the status quo to change.