2016-06-30
In his State of the Union address President Bush described a new national civil service program--the USA Freedom Corps, which he said will renew "the promise of the Peace Corps." Of particular interest to Muslims was the President's promise that the Peace Corps will "join a new effort to encourage development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world."

President Bush went on to proclaim: "America will lead by defending liberty and justice, because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity."

Taken at face value, this proposal will be viewed by many in our country as an extended hand of friendship from the United States to the Muslim world.

But how will Muslims react? Will they accept this offer as a genuine attempt to enhance mutual understanding? Will they be moved by his promise that "America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world?"

What Bush may not have realized is that the world's Muslims--and this includes many American Muslims--paid only passing notice to his comments about promoting education and development in the Muslim world. Instead, most noted that his "axis of evil" was two-thirds Muslim (Iran and Iraq), with North Korea thrown in for window dressing. They also noted that the only organizations he categorized as terrorist were Muslim--Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Jayshi Muhammadi (which means the "Army of Muhammad").

No other groups representing other parts of the world were mentioned. Muslims do not consider this coincidental, and--coupled with the fact that the majority in the Muslim world consider three of those organizations to be legitimate liberation movements--such rhetoric does little to assuage their fears that the U.S. war is against Islam itself.

Many American Muslims were disappointed with the speech. Although the President went to great lengths after Sept. 11 to say that Islam and American Muslims are not the enemy, subsequent actions of the Bush Administration have generated fear in our community: mass round-ups and detentions of Arabs and Muslims by immigration authorities, FBI interviews of community activists, continued use of secret evidence, tacit approval of ethnic profiling, and shutting down three of the largest Americam Muslim charities during the holy month of Ramadan. American Muslims have begun to question our government's commitment to preserving civil liberties. To our dismay, the President said nothing in his speech to allay the fears of Muslims and Arab-Americans, who overwhelmingly supported him in the Presidential election.

In addition, conspicuously absent from President Bush's speech was any mention of the rights of the Palestinian people to freedom and statehood. Instead, his only mention of Palestinians was his inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad among terrorist organizations. From the perspective of many Muslims, the issue of Jerusalem (one of the holiest cities in Islam) and Palestinian rights--and the blind unconditional support of Israel--is the primary source of resentment held by Muslims toward the United States.

President Bush seemed to ignore the daily humiliation and subjugation of the Palestinian people, locked in their towns by massive Israeli military closures and victims of home demolitions, army raids, political assassinations, and a creeping Israeli reoccupation of lands under the control of the Palestine Authority. Muslims ask: How does this square with the President's pronouncement that "America will lead by defending liberty and justice, because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them."

Indeed, President Bush's bold words about defending liberty and justice rang hollow to an audience that was waiting to hear him affirm that such universal principles are applicable to the Palestinians too.

Since Sept. 11, there has been much talk about winning "the hearts and minds" of the Muslim and Arab worlds in order to earn their support in the U.S. war on terrorism. President Bush has given serious consideration to this matter, at least from the public relations point of view. He assigned Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers the unenviable task of implementing this global public relations campaign.

Some possible strategies to market America have included buying airtime on the popular Arabic satellite network, al-Jazeera, or funding an alternative pro-American satellite station for the Arab world. More recently, the New York Times reported that Muhammad Ali had agreed to film a public service announcement on behalf of the United States to be aired in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Tinseltown executives have offered their recommendations for the public relations campaign. Their advice included suggestions to stop airing "Baywatch" --thought to provide an inaccurate, stereotypical view of life in the United States--in favor of more serious programs like "Law and Order." Another suggestion was to include Arab-American characters in television soap operas. Perhaps the most amusing recommendation was to develop video games for the Arab world in which Osama bin Laden is the "bad guy."

Other questionable PR suggestions have included beaming American culture via MTV to the Muslim and Arab worlds. More recently, such actions as exporting the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to Afghanistan to entertain U.S. troops over the holidays yet again reflects either a basic lack of understanding of--or worse, lack of sensitivity for--regional cultural considerations.

While the United States contemplates Madison Avenue tactics and President Bush's Freedom Corps missions to improve our image overseas, television programming in the Arab and Muslim worlds demonstrates that this will be no easy task. Arab and Muslim viewers have seen around-the-clock news images of the war in Afghanistan, with emphasis on the civilian casualties of the U.S. bombing provided by graphic photos of the bodies of men, women, and children pulled from the rubble.

Except for minimal excerpts, this footage was not aired here at home by the major networks. The entire Arab world was transfixed by news coverage of the war by al-Jazeera. On the day Kabul fell to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, a U.S. missile slammed into the al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul, destroying the building. Few in the Muslim world believe the missile incident was an accident.

On other satellite channels in the Muslim world, Israeli tanks are shown roaring into Palestinian towns and refugee camps. Also, a few months ago, the Abu Dhabi satellite channel launched a month-long series entitled "Saladin," chronicling the exploits of one of the most revered leaders in Muslim history--the man who led Muslim forces to victory over the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem.

So, what will it take to truly win over these "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world? Perhaps what is needed is a deeper look at our nation's flawed foreign policy as it concerns the Muslim world. It would be better if the Bush Administration made a genuine effort to promote less repression and more democratization in that corner of the world--and applied a single standard when it comes to human and political rights.

It is highly likely that Muslims will view with suspicion any attempt to "promote" U.S. ideals by merely sending over an American "Freedom Corps." Some Muslims will view these individuals as either outright spies, covertly gathering information on their nations, or as blatant examples of American "arrogance" that seeks to impose cultural hegemony on the rest of the world. In either case, it is doubtful that such a policy will achieve President Bush's announced goal of "encouraging development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world."

There is another way, however. American Muslims are better choices to serve as "bridges of understanding" to the Muslim world. Many American Muslims are either the immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from the Muslim world. Many came to America for education and economic opportunity. Others fled persecution of oppressive regimes for freedom. Still others are indigenous Americans who were either born to Muslim families to converted to Islam. Either way, these American Muslims would make ideal ambassadors to the Muslim world.

We should be included in policy-making bodies, in official American delegations to Muslims countries, and as government appointees on commissions dealing with religions in the Muslim world. As semi-official "ambassadors," American Muslims can help bridge the gaps of misunderstanding, suspicion and mistrust.

The Bush administration should seek out our understanding of Muslim sensibilities to craft a more "Muslim-friendly" foreign policy truly predicated upon American values of justice, equality and human rights. This policy would include genuine attempts to promote political freedoms in the Muslim world while simultaneously addressing the grievances of Palestinians, Kashmiris, Iraqis, and Chechnyans. These are legitimate grievances that have the potential to be hijacked by the likes of bin Laden and his ilk to promote their own twisted agendas.

Otherwise, official U.S. proclamations about Islam's merits notwithstanding, Arabs and Muslims will scoff at our nation's attempts to assuage their concerns by sending over bright-eyed Freedom Corps volunteers or beaming over the somber "Law and Order" instead of bikini-laden "Baywatch."

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