The U.S. State Department has tried for decades—with varying degrees of success—to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. But the effort has taken on a new urgency over the past 20 months as a top adviser to President Bush arrived in Foggy Bottom to oversee a fledgling Muslim outreach program at State.
Karen P. Hughes, a former counselor to President Bush in the White House, took the State Department job in late 2005 and has worked aggressively to put in place programs and people who can help stem the tide of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, South Asia and other places where Muslims tend to be skeptical of U.S. foreign policy.
Hughes’s official title is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, but some observers contend her role is even more important—that she is the U.S. government’s most important link between the United States and the millions of Muslims who think the country is at war with them.
So far, Hughes’s initiatives have received mostly positive reviews. But some critics—including at least one former U.S. Foreign Service officer—view some of the State Department’s measures and rhetoric as evidence of arrogant U.S. meddling in foreign countries through the use of propaganda and deception. Hughes, in several recent speeches, insists the effort is altruistic and aims to demonstrate that religious tolerance is a two-way street.
“Together we must address the misperception fostered by extremists that there is a clash of the civilizations—that the West is somehow in conflict with Islam—because I know and you know it isn’t true,” Hughes said during a March 15 speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Washington. “Islam, as a major world religion, is part of the West and an important part of America.”
To that end, the State Department has stepped up its Citizen Dialogue program, an initiative that allows American Muslims to travel the world and talk about their experiences as Muslims in the United States. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, has traveled the globe for nearly a decade as a sort-of unofficial diplomat for the U.S. government preaching religious tolerance.
Hendi, who is among the most progressive American Imams, accepted his first assignment well before Sept. 11, 2001, or even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, it was way back in 1999 when someone from Foggy Bottom called and asked him to travel to Mali to speak to Muslims there.
He was amazed at the experience and recalled being barraged with a blizzard of questions about such topics as women in Islam, diversity of religion in the United States, and what it is like to be an imam in the West. Since that time, Hendi has traveled to Australia, Africa, Europe, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Hendi—who is not paid for his service to the State Department—said he spends as much time as possible trying to talk to the rest of the Muslim world, not only for the sake of the United States, but for Islam itself.
“I see my work as a fight for the soul of Islam,” Hendi said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Diplomat. “I want to reclaim Islam from extremists. I want to win hearts, souls and minds that might otherwise be lost.”
He added: “American Muslims are at the forefront in the fight for America against terrorism, and to reclaim Islam from extremists.”
Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, and some analysts have predicted it could soon outpace Catholicism as the nation’s second largest religious bloc.
Hendi praised the work of Hughes and her colleagues at the State Department—especially the Citizen Dialogue program in which he participates—but cautioned that it is in dire need of a bigger budget.
“The State Department has its hands on the right buttons,” Hendi said. “They know what they need to do. But these programs do not have enough funding. That is the main problem that has to be dealt with. “I say that sadly because … more money would allow more American [Muslims] to travel and to speak about their experiences.”
The Citizen Dialogue program typically utilizes three or four American Muslims and usually includes a religious figure, an academic, a student and perhaps someone from more mainstream walks of life.
A newer—and at least initially more controversial program—is called Digital Outreach. The program employs Arabic-speaking State Department officials to scour the Internet in search of anti-American rhetoric. The cyber-diplomats counter—through online posts—the often vitriolic verbal assaults on the United States and its foreign policies. In an interview with the Texas-based Austin American-Statesman newspaper in February, Hughes explained the mission as “actively going on the Arabic blogs and responding to misinformation and disinformation and propaganda and rumors with facts. We’re very above board that it’s the Digital Outreach team of the State Department.”
One State Department official conceded to The Diplomat that these digital exchanges are “sometimes a little less friendly” than Citizen Dialogue efforts.
Haitham Sabbah, a husband and father of three children, lives in Bahrain and blogs regularly about what he views as misconceptions about the Muslim world in the mainstream international press. In recent weeks, he has railed against the State Department’s Digital Outreach team, accusing it of “harassing” bloggers who write disparaging things about U.S. foreign policy.
“We are now officially tracked, monitored and harassed by a special team from the U.S. State Department calling themselves the Digital Outreach team,” Sabbah wrote on his blog in late March. “It is unfortunate that millions are spent on such a stupid project … and billions are spent on such a stupid war they are running in Iraq and other billions supporting the racist state of Israel and its occupation of Palestine.”
However, some apparently regular readers of Sabbah’s blog—including a few who sympathized with his sometimes harsh anti-American rhetoric—pointed out that if someone doesn’t want their opinions scrutinized, they shouldn’t put them on the Internet for the entire world to see.
Another State program, part of Secretary of State’s Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” effort, is called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which has devoted more than 3 million in four years to reform efforts to try to spread democracy in the Middle East, as well as improve education, economic progress and women empowerment.
MEPI funding goes directly to partners such as nongovernmental organizations, businesses and universities, and according to the State Department, since 2002, “MEPI has set in motion more than 350 programs in 16 countries and the Palestinian territories through its offices in Washington, Tunis and Abu Dhabi.”
Programs under the initiative range from partnerships with Jordan to promote breast cancer research and awareness as well as student leadership conferences in Egypt. But the initiative’s primary goal is to promote democracy in the Middle East—an often-criticized policy aim of the Bush administration.
Kanat Saudabayev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat that he applauds the State Department’s efforts to bridge the divide between Muslims in the West and East. Saudabayev encouraged other countries to consider the example of Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority but overtly tolerant nation that allows for mosques, but also synagogues, cathedrals and other places of worship.
Part of the reason the United States has been so friendly to Kazakhstan is because of its religious tolerance and its willingness to foster dialogue between the United States and other Muslim countries. Kazakhstan also scored major diplomatic points with the U.S. government when it voluntarily relinquished its nuclear arsenal at the end of the Cold War.
“The State Department can use Kazakhstan’s experience as a country that has really shown it is possible to have friendly relations with the Muslim world and the West,” Saudabayev said.
But he added that it is not enough for the United States to pay lip service to Islamic traditions and cultures abroad. “It is important for the West to understand the culture, traditions and customs of different countries and then tread carefully and respectfully in relations with these countries,” Saudabayev said.
The ambassador, whose country has enjoyed strong bilateral U.S. relations in recent years, also said it is important that the United States “not isolate the countries with which you have problems, but foster dialogue and get them involved in the common diplomatic processes.”
“Try to have these countries listen and hear you but at the same time listen and hear them as well,” Saudabayev suggested.
Former U.S. Foreign Service officer John Brown has accused the U.S. government of falling short in its efforts to understand Islamic nations. Brown, a Princeton-educated career diplomat who resigned in opposition to President Bush’s foreign policies in 2003, wrote in April on the Commondreams.org Web site that Hughes’s preference for stressing the diplomacy of American “deeds” in the Islamic world—without a correlating understanding of it—is part of the problem.
In her speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Hughes spoke of U.S. efforts to educate women and provide “food and better health care across the world, from the Palestinian territories to Africa … and more job opportunities.”
“She wants to impress audiences abroad [and flatter U.S. voters] by showing how kind and generous we Americans are in our conservatively compassionate actions to help those not as blessed as ourselves,” Brown wrote in his April 9 essay. “Meanwhile, she conveniently forgets that public acts of charity are not always appreciated and that the major foreign policy deeds of the administration she serves has appalled the world for years.”
Farah Pandith, senior advisor in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, is in charge of Muslim outreach in Europe. In an interview with The Diplomat, Pandith said “there is no silver bullet” for improving America’s reputation in the Muslim world. But she noted that the department is engaged in myriad activities—from sports programs, to educational exchanges to forums among nongovernmental organizations—to help dispel stereotypes about the Muslim experience in the United States.
“There is a great deal of misunderstanding about how American Muslims are treated in our county and that’s an important thing for us to be concerned about,” she said. “There is a lot of mythology out there.”
She said American Muslims represent 80 different countries of origin and Muslims in Europe, who hail from a much narrower geographic background, are curious about that. She also explained that the State Department generally defers to the U.S. ambassador in each European country to determine the best programs for that nation. In Belgium, for example, local Muslims might want to hear from American imams as to how they engage their youth, whereas Muslims in France might be more interested in learning how NGOs gain access in U.S. politics and government.
Pandith, a former National Security Council staffer, conceded that the U.S. government has sometimes failed to cast itself in the best light in the Muslim world. “There have definitely been moments in the last five years we could have told our story better,” she said. “There is a great deal of hostility and misperception … that America is at war with Islam.
“Clearly America is not at war with Islam. There are millions of Muslims who live in this country as Americans,” Pandith said. “How could they live here if we were at war with them? It doesn’t make sense.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.