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Story Publication logo December 11, 2005

Entrenched distrust undermines White House effort to reach out


The following article ran as part of a seven-part series by Jon Sawyer and Tim Townsend, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 4-11, 2005.


Karen Hughes says that when she agreed earlier this year to become America's point person on public diplomacy, with a special emphasis on reaching out to Muslims, she read every report on the subject she could find.

"One of the things that came through (was) that America is perceived as talking at people rather than listening to them," she said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch in her suite of offices at the State Department, where she now serves as undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy.

"And so I felt it was important early in my tenure here for me to travel and reach out and listen to people - both for me to be able to hear and learn and understand better, but also to show a willingness for America to listen."

Critics say that's precisely what she hasn't done.

They say Hughes is still in spin mode, deploying the media skills that served President George W. Bush so well in her years as his communications director but that are more problematic when it comes to friction over the U.S. war on terrorism and its role in the Middle East.

Sheikh Shaker el Sayed, a prominent Muslim leader in the Washington area, said Hughes' tour this fall of Muslim countries had the look of photo ops, staged meetings with prominent leaders and pre-screened groups of citizens.
"I wish she had gone to see real people in the real streets instead of meeting with just politicians and the elite," said el Sayed, the imam, or preacher, at the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Va. "She seems to have taken on a very narrow mission - of trying to convince people over there of how correct the administration is, no matter what people might think.

Common ground?

Hughes acknowledges that her challenge is more than words. She talks about funding to bring in more foreign students, to improve American proficiency in foreign language and the teaching of English overseas, to enhance the U.S. presence on Arab television and radio.

Yet as she runs through some of the thorniest issues policymakers face, from allegations of torture to skepticism over America's goals in Iraq, Hughes says again and again that if critics better understood U.S. policies, they would be supportive.

For example, she said, while many Muslims disagreed with U.S. intervention in Iraq and its pro-Israel stance, she has found common ground on the need to stay the course now in building a democratic Iraq and on working toward Bush's goal of an independent Palestine.

A "lot of it is sort of building a deeper understanding of what we're doing, why we're doing it and what we're really working toward," Hughes said.

Similarly, Hughes acknowledges that most people in the Middle East believe that Iraq is worse off now than before the U.S. invasion and also that U.S. troops remain an army of occupation. But she says that's because they don't understand that most Iraqis believe they are better off and that "what you have in Iraq today is an independently elected government" that will hold parliamentary elections later this week.

That skepticism prevails in the region appears beyond dispute.

A survey for the British defense ministry disclosed in October in The Telegraph found that 67 percent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation and 82 percent "strongly opposed" to the presence of foreign troops.

In a University of Maryland survey of six Arab nations released earlier this month, 69 percent of those polled said they "do not believe" that promoting democracy is America's real goal in Iraq or the Middle East. Of those surveyed, 76 percent said oil was "a major objective" of U.S. policy in the region; 68 percent cited the protection of Israel, 63 percent a U.S. desire to dominate the region, and 59 percent a U.S. goal of weakening the Muslim world.

Detainees, abuse

Hughes said communication was also at the root of friction over the issues of torture and U.S. treatment of detainees. She cited the abusive treatment of Iraqis by U.S. personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison last year as a case in point.
"What's important for the world to know is that Americans were sickened by the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib, just as the world was," she said. "Just as Muslims were offended, we were deeply offended."

She said the problem is that "the crime has got a lot more attention than the punishment," citing the convictions of low-ranking personnel as proof that the system worked. She brushed aside the critics who say that the abuse was a matter of policy and that policymakers went unpunished.

"That's simply wrong," she said. "The policy of the military is to treat prisoners humanely and with respect."
Hughes said that was the case as well for the approximately 500 detainees still held at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo, Cuba.

"Every inmate who is now held at Guantanamo has had a hearing, an administrative review of their case," she said.

"They have access to the courts."

The administrative hearings within the military were begun only after they were compelled by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court last year, over administration objections. Detainee access to the federal courts also came about only as the result of a Supreme Court ruling, one that the administration is now seeking to limit through Congress.

"On its face, technically, yes, the government is now permitting access to the courts," said Avidan Cover, an attorney with Human Rights First who has monitored the Guantanamo proceedings. "Yet they are fighting it tooth and nail, in the courts, and not every individual has had a hearing. And this entire process, including the administrative tribunals, was resisted by the administration from the very beginning."

A "lethal brew"

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institution, has studied American attitudes toward Muslims and the Middle East, and vice versa, for years, often in concert with his brother John Zogby, the pollster.

James Zogby believes that misunderstanding is growing and that administration rhetoric about the war on terrorism has only made it worse.

Two years ago, 74 percent of those surveyed in a Zogby poll said "I need to know more" about the Middle East. When the question was asked this year, those saying they needed to know more had dropped to 57 percent. "Fear and anger and ignorance are a lethal brew," Zogby said, "but fear and anger and thinking you know are even more dangerous."

Open-ended survey questions also produce disturbing results, he notes. When people are asked to name the best thing they associate with the Arab world, or with Islam, a consistent majority can't come up with a single answer. Asked what word they associate with "Arab" or "Muslim," top choices are invariably "terrorist" and "danger."

This partly reflects the Muslim-associated terrorism of recent years, Zogby acknowledges - but only partly. It's also comments like those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to the Middle East as a "malignant" place, and popular entertainment like Showtime's current "Sleeper Cell," a 10-part dramatic series that features Arab-American terrorists.

Most wounding of all, to Arabs and Muslims, is a media representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that to them appears relentlessly pro-Israeli.

Zogby cited coverage of this summer of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, specifically the many wrenching stories about Israeli settlers forced to abandon their homes.

"Where have the stories been about the Palestinians forced to leave their homes because of Israel's construction of the security wall?" he asks. "You would think from the coverage that no one has been forced out of their homes."

Using the media

Zogby was among the speakers who addressed the impact of media bias on Western-Muslim relations at a symposium this fall at George Washington University. David Chambers, former director of programs for the Middle East Institute, made the point that media manipulation is very much a two-way street - and that no one is more proactive than al-Qaida and its many terrorist offshoots.

He said the media is "a central player" in the terrorists' strategy "to wear down the United States and its allies in a long-term war of attrition."

Zogby acknowledged al-Qaida's use of the media, but he said it does not compare to the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

"I grant the use terrorists are making of the media, sometimes effectively," he said. "But in the past 30 years, we have spent more money, fought more wars, cost more lives, had more at stake, and exerted more capital in the Middle East than anyone else in the world."

Clovis Maksoud, director of American University's Center for the Global South, says that in bridging the U.S.-Middle East divide, nothing matters more than the language we use. And when Americans across the political spectrum responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with the question, "Why do they hate us?," he said, they burned bridges simply by their choice of words.

"Arabs and Muslims don't 'hate,'" he said. "A fringe group does, a group of extremists that wanted to push the Bush administration - and has succeeded - into a polarity of right and wrong.

"Hatred is the rupture of dialogue, an attempt to justify killing and the killing of oneself. . . . But anger - which is characteristic of most of the Arab and Muslim world - is an invitation to dialogue and debate.

"So the question shouldn't be, 'Why do they hate us?' but 'Why are they angry?'"

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