Picture this: eight angry Egyptian men in a Cairo focus group venting rage at all things American for an hour. Then a graying 60 year old with a pencil mustache sighed, saying: "I wish it would get back to what it was. I used to love America." His words pointed to something surprising we learned from 14 recent focus groups in Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia: many Muslims could change their minds about America.
The research showed that the United States can improve its image in the Muslim world, despite the widespread anti-Americanism there. Perceptions matter. Muslims do not hate Americans for "who we are" or "what we do;" they are angry at what they perceive the U.S. has done in Iraq, the war on terrorism, Palestine, and to Muslims in American. Moreover, they continue to admire the U.S. in the domains where their countries need help, but most are unaware of the large and growing U.S. aid programs in these areas.
Awareness is growing of the dangers posed to the U.S. by anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries. These feelings aid terrorist recruitment, diminish America's ability to promote reform in Muslim countries, and threaten U.S. business, troops and tourists. These concerns were underscored by the choice of Karen Hughes, one of U.S. President George W. Bush's closest associates, to head the State Department's public diplomacy efforts. The Muslim world may always hate and love America, but her appointment suggests Washington wants to swing the balance in its favor.
Our findings showed that the keys to a new U.S. dialogue with the Muslim world are a humbler tone, a focus on partnership with local initiatives, and a sustained effort with major resources. When Muslims knew of U.S. help on issues that matter to them, like tsunami relief in Indonesia or women's rights in Morocco, it made a real difference. So did facts on other U.S. aid programs. As they heard them, many agreed with the Moroccan man who declared: "If these things are true, we would be friends of the U.S.!"
It was no news that Egyptians, Moroccans and Indonesians are hostile to America and U.S. power. They associated the U.S. with "blood" and "domination," called it "ferocious" and "manipulative," and gave Bush uniformly bad marks. Anger spilled over from U.S. policy to American firms and citizens. Such perceptions were based on information about America chiefly drawn from highly critical television stations, such as Al-Jazeera, the largest Arabic-language satellite network.
Yet Muslims are still impressed by the U.S., even if grudgingly. An older Indonesian woman said: "We hate its arrogance, but like the positive aspects." These included America's economy, schools and legal institutions, areas where the groups most wanted help for their own countries, tempering their anger against America. They felt that, as a 20-something Jakarta woman put it: "Despite the drawbacks, we need America."
U.S. assistance, however, has become all but invisible to Muslim audiences. Older Cairo residents remembered bags of grain with the U.S. Agency for International Development handshake logo from their youth, but are unaware that lately America has provided low-pollution buses and family planning clinics. "Now we don't see any of this," said a 50-year-old woman with a headscarf. Egyptians put U.S. aid to Egypt over the last 10 years in the millions; they reacted with disbelief when told it was $7.3 billion.
But when Muslims learned of U.S. efforts to help them, the impact was positive. After the massive U.S. relief program for victims of the Asian tsunami, follow-up groups in Jakarta in January voiced appreciation and were less hostile to America than those a month before. Similarly, the U.S. has vigorously backed reform of the family code and increased women's political participation in Morocco, and women there were the only ones in the study who said that America's message was not force, but democracy. As information was provided about other aid programs in the groups, reactions were similar to that of the Egyptian woman who said: "If it's helping us, we'll thank them!"
Yet if America is to have a new conversation with the Islamic world, this depends not just on saying something new, but on how America says it. The groups rejected with scorn claims that the Bush administration was working for the good of the Islamic world by fighting terror and promoting democracy and reform. Defending U.S. military action and presenting America as a force driving change angered them. (A young Jakarta woman wrote on a mock postcard to the White House, "Dear President Bush: Please help us with our economy but let us run our country!") In contrast, a more modest U.S. perspective based on listening, backing Muslim initiatives for democracy and growth, and agreeing to disagree over the war on terrorism, won wide support.
The groups also showed that Muslims will listen to what America says about their own lands only if the U.S. can agree to disagree over contentious issues like Iraq or Afghanistan, which provoked rage that shut down the dialogue whenever they were mentioned. The fate of Iraq and Afghanistan will in any event chiefly depend on their own citizens' views, not external opinion. If the main U.S. interest in other Islamic countries, like Indonesia, Morocco, or Egypt, is helping them reform, it must tolerate disagreements over its more controversial policies elsewhere.
As an older Casablanca man in a suit put it: "We have to recognize, there are things we agree on and disagree on."
To reach Muslims, America should vigorously engage local and regional news media - including Al-Jazeera - and also purchase paid advertising. However, changing the current situation will require major efforts and resources for an extended period. America's image problem took years to develop and won't end quickly.
Of course, there are limits to even the best communications efforts. Attitudes will be influenced by events the U.S. cannot control, as the recent storm over the Koran desecration story showed. Yet while Muslims care about what happens elsewhere in the Islamic world, the focus groups also showed that America's relationship with the respondents' own countries matters just as much. A sea change in attitudes may be impossible, but we saw that real progress can be made in opening Muslim minds about the U.S.
The U.S. now has a window of opportunity to reach out to the Islamic world, thanks to a series of developments this year that have improved the atmosphere. These included the Iraqi elections, renewed hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and the possibility of a multi-candidate presidential election in Egypt, as well as the tsunami relief campaign.
The challenge for the U.S. now is to reach people like the Egyptian woman who said: "America is like this great guy who every once in a while does something immature and you begin to hate him." She was mad when she said it. But she was smiling, too.
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