Jihad N. Fakhreddine
In her assignment
as the communication director of George W. Bush’s presidential
and gubernatorial campaigns, Karen Hughes maintained straight-A
grades. In her first trip to the Middle East as undersecretary
for public diplomacy in September, however, Mrs. Hughes’
GPA seems to have dropped to a C or even less, according to
evaluations by US and international media.
no shortage of media speculation over why Mrs. Hughes performance
was less than satisfactory. Yet what has been overlooked is
one of the most serious flaws in the marketing of the US to
Arabs and Muslims: ignoring a basic concept in “Marketing
101.” This concept is the proper identification of target
audiences, or more specifically, the segmentation of target
audiences according to their potential empathy, apathy or apprehensiveness
towards the US.
the obvious fact that America would benefit from reassessing
its one-size-fits-all communications strategy, it is not clear
whether officials have even begun such an elementary market
segmentation exercise. As the US administration scrambled to
activate America's international opinion radar after the 9/11
attacks, the first readings encountered were the following:
They hate us because they hate our democracy; they hate us because
they do not know us; they hate us because they envy our freedom.
Such explanations soon became US dogma. According to this logic,
Arabs and Muslims are simply oblivious to America's ideals,
its values and the rationales for its foreign polices. If only
“they” understood “us,” the argument
went, “they” wouldn’t hate “us.”
Caught up in misperceptions about the Arabs, the US administration
could not identify any Arab groups inside the region whom it
could count on to utter a positive word on behalf of America.
Four years after 9/11, the US administration still cannot find
such Arab partners. But this is not because they do not exist,
but because US public diplomacy is fishing on the wrong side
of the boat. Recent media reports hint that there is hope of
a viable catch, however
small it might be.
every report on the do’s and don'ts of US public diplomacy
recommends that the US gives priority to students and cultural
exchanges. In June, President Bush assigned Dina Habib Powell,
an Egyptian-born former White House personnel director, as the
assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
Mrs. Powell is working directly under Karen Hughes, the undersecretary
for public diplomacy. But the public diplomacy signals that
preceded Mrs. Hughes visit to the region gave the impression
that the Bush administration was just experiencing its first
encounter with Arabs.
A June 24
International Herald Tribune (IHT) report gives the distinct
impression that the first-ever cultural interaction between
Americans and Arabs took place over the past 12 months through
the State Department-sponsored Youth Exchange and Study Program.
The IHT reports that four Arab students were among 300 foreign
participants in that program who lived for a year with American
families and attended American high schools.
adds that the last names of these four Arab students will not
be made public, since "program officials would not allow
their last names to be used, for what they called security reasons."
On the positive side, this initiative "appears to have
had positive results" adds the report. "The students,
all of them precocious and enthusiastic, described a dramatic
shattering of their own preconceptions, but also of those held
by their host families and newfound American friends."
of the Youth Exchange and Study Program should not have given
the impression that the successful encounter of the four Arab
high school students was the first of its kind. It need not
be regarded as a secret experiment where divulging the family
names of the four students represents a "security threat."
By the time
I left the United States in the fall of 1989, I had already
spent just over a quarter of my life in Greensboro, North Carolina.
It was a work and study marathon; first at the University of
North Carolina-Greensboro and later at North Carolina &
Technical and Agricultural State University. I landed a job
at a fast-food steakhouse the same week I arrived in Greensboro
in August 1979 and worked there until the last day
of my stay in the US. I had a social security number and paid
my state and federal taxes like everybody else. I personally
do not see it as a personal security threat in stating publicly
that who I am intellectually now is a product of both the Arab
as well as the US cultures.
of thousands of Arab students, like me, spent an average of
four to five years at US universities. And while thousands are
still there or have chosen to remain there, hundreds of thousands
like me headed back home after graduation. By virtue of their
US education, these Arabs are in key business, government and
professional positions in their home countries. Now the US administration
is experimenting with only four Arab students to see how their
attitudes towards the US would change after staying with American
families and study at a US high school for one year?
question is: Why is America out of touch with such groups of
Arabs who logically ought to be considered in terms of their
potential for fostering more positive attitudes towards the
US? If the US fails to generate positive attitudes amongst this
segment of Arab society, it is very unlikely that it can influence
Arabs who know the US only through the media or mere perceptions,
let alone the grass root supporters of the perpetrators of the
9/11 attacks on the US.
As a pollster
and as an Arab deeply troubled by the lack of meaningful cross-communication
between the Americans and the Arabs, I would not conduct new
experiments on a handful of young Arabs, giving the impression
that Arabs are from the planet Mars and have landed in the US
only recently. Before attempting to engage the hard core anti-American
Arabs in the Arab world, it may be best to seek to understand
and measure the attitudes of hundreds of thousands of Arab university
graduates who lived the US experience for a good four to five
years and are now in key professional positions in their home
are they? How positive have their experiences been? How disgruntled
are they and why? Can they become good-will ambassadors for
the US in their own countries? Is there any affinity towards
America? What can be done to encourage positive feelings? Most
importantly, what can be done to promote a positive cross-communication
exchange between Arabs who know America first hand and speak
its language, and American society itself?
US perspective, the main question ought to be how such segments
of the Arab population can be positively engaged. From an Arab
perspective, Arabs who graduated from American universities
have an obligation towards promoting a more positive understanding
between the America and Arab world. Just as there are many elements
that could create mutual apprehensions, there are an equally
large number of areas where common cultural ground can be found
and expanded upon. Continued political and cultural segregation
and silence can only result in more mutual remorse and misunderstanding.
Hughes' task to be fruitful, she must identify the different
Arab groups according to their level of receptiveness or ambivalence
towards the US. Furthermore, rather than giving the impression
that the US is just discovering the Arabs, or simply granting
scholarships to a few hundred of Arab students, it must also
open up to hundreds of thousands who financed their own education
in American universities.
US State Department labels its efforts to reach Arabs public
diplomacy, its Arab university graduates ought to label American
efforts to improve cross-communication and cultural exchange
as civic diplomacy. Arab civic diplomacy must adopt the model
of people-to-people communication and interaction. In contrast
the US public diplomacy model is government-to-people communication,
with little or no engagement from the US civic bodies or organizations
in reaching Arabs. Most Arabs understand there is a clear distinction
between the Americans and the US government. Anti-America attitudes
need not be translated into full-scale anti-Americanism.
Jihad Fakhreddine is the Research Manager
for Media at the Pan Arab Research Center (PARC). He writes
on the Arab media and the US public diplomacy.