Friday, February 20, 2004

Battling for Hearts and Minds

Insofar as we allow the enemy to define the battleground, the advantage is his. Our enemy is the Qutb/Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims who believe us a Satanic threat to Islam (this is exact and not hyperbole: Satan is the deceiver/seducer). Their philosophy has 2 main thrusts as far as we are concerned:
  1. a critique of the West as secular/atheist (or Christian; it doesn't matter much to Qutb) and therefore intrinsically deranged; and
  2. a claim that only through adherence to God's law as codified in sharia is there true happiness and nobility.

We cannot persuade our committed foes, and shouldn't bother trying. We may be able reduce their recruiting rate, though.

If we take their challenges as our battlefield, and attempt to deny them directly, we're apt to lose. For example, consider Qutb's first front. Our culture very plainly has deranged aspects, and atheism has a very prominent place in it. You may try to say that every society has problems--but Johnny Abdul will be more scandalized by alien faults than familiar ones. The local problems (government corruption, etc) may hurt him more, but they don't shock him as much as the unfamiliar ones.

You may try to point out that a secular government doesn't require secularism--but that subtle point is apt to elude him: It has escaped attention here in the West as well. In short, Johnny Abdul is likely to agree with Qutb that we're a lot of deranged atheists.

Johnny Abdul is not an atheist; he despises them. He does like the goodies we offer, and for a lot of people, in peacetime, that's enough to reconcile them to us. But even in peacetime, and more certainly in war, sophisticated Muslims will warn that the goodies are a trap to snare good Muslims into materialism and vice. Which of course they certainly can be.

To make matters worse, Johnny Abdul may want the goodies, but he can't have them. He doesn't make enough money. He can't, not without fairly dramatic political and economic restructuring--which won't happen. The political poles in these societies are the entrenched interests (and factions thereof) and the revolutionaries--who have coalesced around radical Islam. Not much hope for useful change there... If it were possible to improve Johnny Abdul's economic life, he'd be more likely to go along with the great Satan in order to get medicine, etc. But he is simultaneously more likely to become more sophisticated and realize the trap of materialism.

One school of thought holds that if we can make the Muslims middle class, they'll exclude religion from their calculations--like Sunday-only Christians. But Marx was wrong, and not all motives are economic. How many of the suicide bombers are poor? How many of the 911 killers were poor?

In any event, we can't change the economic conditions of Mideast countries without taking control of them--the reforms required are too radical. They need new political systems, changed economic structures, different educational priorities, different social attitudes towards corruption and nepotism--not just better roads.

The other front--that sharia is the way of joy--is hard to counter directly, since Johnny's imam will point out that we (being infidels) have no standing to judge such things. We can publicize the horrors of the Iranian mullahs or the Saudi custodians of virtue or the Taliban soccer field mayhem. It won't get very far coming from us. I see that we've finally gotten a satellite station up, but I don't know much about it yet.

Iraq is a great place to plant radio/TV stations for the whole Middle East--and we haven't moved on that yet. Even so, we can't expect that anyone will accept our critiques of Islam.

Publicizing our virtues

So on what fronts can we fight Qutb et al? I've mentioned the seductions of materialism already. Materialism is a two-edged sword, and I think more likely to cause us problems. Our advertisers are too good, stirring up desires for ever-more stuff. And who gets blamed for the inevitable frustration? Not the imam...

We can try to publicize ways our society is qualitatively morally superior to any Muslim state. Don't laugh--you can almost always find a virtue in one society that is ill-developed in others. (The MidEast is famous for hospitality, for instance.) We can try to publicize our extreme care for the lives of innocents, and our generosity in Iraq, etc. Unfortunately we've already lost the first PR campaign about care for innocent lives--Al Jazeera saw to that. It is now yesterday's news, and the Arabs "know" how deadly we were. True, they also know that Al Jazeera lied, but the bloody images will stick with them.

In any event, as the war continues, I worry about the depth of our commitment to careful warfare. Most especially when (not if) we lose one of our cities, I expect our patience to run thin and more thorough warfare become standard again. In some cases that might be more effective--but I'm not expert enough to be sure. Suffice it to say I don't think we'll prove ourselves superior in motives.

Generosity is tricky. To actually win hearts and minds the largess needs to

  1. get to the people and not be sidetracked by corrupt governments;
  2. be seen as a gift and not an entitlement; and
  3. actually make a difference in people's lives.
Point 3 means that largish chunks of very targeted money are involved, with part going into infrastructure and part into goodies. It takes a lot of thought, a lot of local input, and cooperation from the authorities. Except in Iraq, point 1 is not easy to arrange in any Muslim country. Because giving alms is one of the pillars of Islam, receiving them ranks as an entitlement, and point 2 does not obtain either. Except in Iraq, we're stuck.
(Correction) It was pointed out that some countries are much less corrupt than others, which is true. It is also quite true that arranging for point 1 is hard in any country (or state or county or city or school board . ..), thanks to national pride and Not Invented Here issues.

Of course standard operating procedure has been to give military funding on the assumption that inevitable military coups will bring American-trained and hopefully American-friendly officers to the top. So far this hasn't helped a lot--some, perhaps. Turkey has its own traditions going back to Ataturk. Pakistan is resolutely two-faced. Egypt? The militaries are part of the corrupt establishment too.

"Search for knowledge, even in China"

We need to get into the media in a big way throughout the Muslim world--not just in the Mideast. We start with broadcasting unbiased news, and include music and other attractive features. Then we have to add the extra features that bring our message across.

I see we have a brand-new station called Al Hurra. According to the NY Times article they only broadcast 14 hours a day, and some of the material doesn't seem terribly relevant--a documentary about Anthony Hopkins?

Making news unbiased is a very difficult task. Merely reporting accurately what reporters see around the world results in a horribly biased picture--because of what reporters are not allowed to see. Think of the news organs that sold their souls to be allowed to report from Hussain's Iraq, or the wild disparity in what you can report in Israel vs what the PA allows to be reported. Tyrants insist on whitewashing, and one way or another, they get it. Either you report what you are shown and nothing else, or you don't get to report anything. (And no news is good news, right?)

To make matters worse, most reporters prefer a comfortable life in the US or the EU, and so we get an avalanche of stories from the US and EU, and a trickle from everywhere else. The bulk of the world doesn't much care who J.Lo. marries, nor who wins the New Hampshire primaries, nor how long the New York garbagemen have been on strike.

Since we can report more scandal from the free world than from dictatorships, if you just report the stories you have on hand it sounds like Belgium is a more corrupt place than North Korea. You're not going to get a lot of stories out of North Korea, so if you want an unbiased presentation of the situation in the world you have to select fewer of the horror stories from the free nations. One way to do this is to allot a certain amount of time to each section of the world. The BBC news web site does this.

Setting aside the often rather striking biases in reporting, the BBC model actually works pretty well. We want to report local news, regional news, and world news--pretty much in that order. Getting local news means hiring reporters for every relevant local region, and cultivating local stringers. If we just rely on official press releases we might as well not bother. Is it worth while to carefully distinguish on-air between stories from reporters and official statements? We've got to devote enough resources and talent (and translators) to keep from looking like asses. This is going to be quite expensive, and while a satellite station is a good start, we need local stations too.

We don't want to make the mistake VOA made, of quoting jihadi conspiracy theorists to "balance" against honest reporting. Granted, this is hard to do in regions like Egypt where lunatic conspiracy theories about Israel and the US are the norm. To even report rumors and official statements about "Zionist mind control rays," even to deny them, gives them more credibility than they deserve. I'm afraid I have no hard-and-fast rules to propose.

Of course, regional news comes from culled local news, and world news comes from culled regional news and the big world news feeds.

When I say that most of the world doesn't care who Jennifer Lopez marries, I don't mean to say that they don't know who she is. Entertainment is a big industry that gets a lot of attention; and we've got to make sure that the appropriate entertainment news is part of the feed. "Appropriate" is key: give Bollywood info where Indian movies are big, leave out lurid details where these are apt to give offense, and so on. Reporting on local musicians is important, but fraught with traps. Some entertainers go in for political attacks in battles we don't care to take sides in; and some (like Sha'ban Abd Al-Rahim in Egypt with his vile songs claiming that 911 was a US plot) we don't want to give air time to.

The alert reader will have noted that this requires a corps of reporters and cultural specialists in hundreds of places around the world, which we don't seem to have right now. We've got to train a pool of people to draw from, for starters. The next problem is getting them to stay in the often less-than-enticing spots. If you pay large salaries as a motivator, the cultural and economic gap between the citizens and the wealthy and insulated reporters makes the reporting much less useful. I don't see any easy ways to make a military specialist "reporter" who won't be given skewed news. Maybe we could have a "Peace Corps" analog: a "News Corps."
It has been pointed out that in countries that do not tolerate a free press foreign reporters are subject to expulsion, and local reporters can be intimidated. So we don't have a clear way to get timely local news; and accurate, timely local news would be a big draw. We could rely on semi-anonymous sources, but that's no substitute for reporters able to go around and ask questions. Clearly this needs work.

The astute reader will also be insisting that a propaganda network cannot be unbiased, and suspecting that I am talking through my hat.

I mean, of course, that we avoid certain existing methodological biases and try to tell the truth.

Correction: The entertainment news requires a lot of review for cultural sensitivity. I may as well call it censorship, though it has nothing to do with politics.

  • "If it bleeds, it leads" automatically introduces a bias that depicts the world as more dangerous than it really is. I remember watching the local news in Chicago and in New Orleans--both big cities with similar crime rates. In Chicago the crime report was a couple of minutes, while in New Orleans the crime report was ten minutes long and dominated by dramatic murder scenes. It made New Orleans sound dreadfully dangerous. If you aren't careful, the dramatic stories drown out the rest of the news.

    Sit-coms are situated in houses or apartments that are far larger than that of the average American; a single hour of a crime show can have more murders than a policeman will see in a lifetime; and Baywatch to the contrary most American women aren't inflated with silicone. Would you blame someone overseas who watched the last SuperBowl for suspecting that Americans have a tendency to rip off women's blouses?

    In scientific research we have to make corrections all the time. You have to understand your "sampling bias." We oversample dramatic stories in the US/EU and undersample dramatic stories in Africa. So you either must toss most of the US/EU scandals or dig deeper for stories in Africa.

  • We have a tendency to quote as serious things that are said only for effect. When a lawyer claims his client is innocent, that isn't front page news. Politicians notoriously overstate issues, and we go along with the soundbite charade. We shouldn't, especially when we're trying to give the world an unbiased look at us.

There are some tricky points, as the New York Times story on Al Hurra mentioned: do we call Palestinian terrorists terrorists, or martyrs, or something bland? I'm not an expert on Arabic, but I suspect we can find some language that gets the point across. "Martyr" is absolutely the wrong word, but "suicide" emphasizes the crime--that sort of thing. And, after all, the bombers want to inspire terror--so why not mention that and call them terrorists?

Reframe the Debate

To undercut the Qutb appeal, we must try to show that we are a religion-friendly culture.

One approach is to implicitly offer an alternative: not the House of War or House of Submission, but the "House of Fruit."

This we can do with programs of religious good news: 5 minute TV/radio pieces on how some religious group or other group has been helping other people. Keep religious groups prominent, but throw in the Shriners or community efforts from time to time; and make sure the philanthropy is uncontroversial, and not likely to excite envy. (No stories of aid to Israel or the Palestinians, or of buying Cadillacs for the preacher) It is true that all the good actions of an infidel won't make him as good as the worst believer, but the point is to frame the debate in terms of actions and judgment of whether actions are good or not. Title it "By Their Fruits You Will Know Them."

The impression we want to leave is that just as the hearer can judge the generous spirits of people of different faiths, so can we. The secular society gives good people a chance to prove themselves, and bad people a chance to be discovered. The deeds are the proof, and not the invisible belief. As far as I can tell it is perfectly orthodox to say that "Even in lands of ignorance good people demonstrate their goodness, and presumably will be rewarded by God. Likewise even in lands of submission you find evil people whose disobedience will be punished by God."

Other broadcast squibs should acknowledge the holy days of Islam, Judaism, Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity (both calendars), with mentions and brief explanations through the day.

Another program would be "The Voice of the Prophets;" reading without commentary in the local vernacular from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran. Precede each reading with a quick who-and-where, but no more; and call the program an aid to devotions. No Hadiths, no commentaries. Cycle back to the beginning as each book ends. Offer cassettes/CDs of the mix or of each work separately. (Use Egyptian Arabic rather than classical Arabic for broadcast in Egypt, Farsi in Iran, etc.)

This will infuriate some Muslims who'll take it as an insult to the Koran to be read on the same program as the Bible, and also those for whom it is blasphemy to translate the Koran. (Of course it is translated anyway, and offered as a devotional aid but not as the Koran itself.) Insofar the Koran is studied in the local dialect instead of Arabic, to that degree the dominance of Arabia decreases. Non-Arabic Muslims are currently second-class Muslims (see Among the Believers).

Just as the "By Their Fruits" show allows Johnny Abdul to judge by deeds, this allows him to judge ideas, and see that other prophets (esteemed by Islam) praised God well too, and deserve respect for that. He can't object too strongly to such readings of the writings of honored prophets--unless the Koran suffers by comparison, as I suspect it might.

I would hardly look for conversions from Islam with such a program. (I judge that such conversions would be a good thing, but don't think this program will do it.) But you can hope that a little of the respect Muslims hold for the ancient prophets may start to be accorded to those who quote them, and try to follow them.


Most of the Muslim world seems to be convinced that the uppity Jews have seized possession of a very holy site in the heartland of ancient Islam's glory days and are persecuting and murdering innocent Palestinian Muslims in order to hold it.

  • Perhaps Jerusalem is a very holy site, but you couldn't prove it from Muslim behavior (see Bat Ye'or, or even Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad). They seem not to care particularly about Jerusalem unless somebody else has possession. It won't help to point this out, though.
  • I hear a lot of claims of support for the innocent Palestinians and their noble martyrs. I also notice that nobody wants them for neighbors. Nobody. Once again, it won't help to point this out.

    The persecution does exist at some level, though it seems milder than (for instance) the standard operating procedures of the Egyptian government for dealing with Copts. Friedman (From Beirut to Jerusalem) describes Israeli attitudes toward Palestinian laborers that must be humiliating. Even if this changed, I doubt that non-Palestinian Muslims would care.

  • The uppity Jews, by refusing to keep to their proper place as humble dhimmis, are a severe challenge to the common versions of sharia. Interpretations of the Treaty of Umar that are now enshrined in sharia as divine law state that Jews are required to have second-class status when under Muslim rule, and are enemies when not under Muslim rule. These same provisions apply to Christians (pagans and atheists get less respect). Muslim religious objections to Israel are tightly tied to enmity to all infidels--namely us.

    Officially sharia is fixed and firm, but in practice you'll find numerous variations. Can we hope for a more benign sharia?

    Even if versions of sharia appear which re-interpret the precedents set by the early caliphs (and I've heard rumors of a few), we've no guarantee these will survive competition with the rest--especially when the Guardians of the Holy Cities oppose them. And spreading new versions will take time. It took decades to spread Wahhabism, and it'll take decades to undo the damage.

It seems that we don't have many ways to soothe Muslim ire over Israel short of nuking Tel Aviv. Given the coupling between attitudes towards Jews and attitudes towards Christians, betraying Israel would not only fail to buy us peace, it would harden Muslim resolve and increase their confidence in defeating the rest of us infidels. I'm not sure we can afford that.

Suppose one could arrange for a real peace agreement between the Jews and the Arabs, and the two groups actually succeeded in getting along as well as two neighboring countries ever do. I grant that this is unlikely now and will remain unlikely until after radical and undoubtedly violent changes in Palestinian society. A substantial fraction of the Palestinians would have a vested interest in compromising on the rules about infidels. That helps build peace. You might think that "No harm, no foul" would mean that remoter Muslims might be mollified if the Palestinians weren't complaining. But I don't think so. Recall apartheid South Africa. The loudest complainers and saber-rattlers weren't the front-line (neighbor) countries, but the countries farther away who couldn't be called on to suffer for the cause.

Remote Muslim countries would still have the same motive for inciting hatred of Israel--to distract their citizens and focus their anger away from the corrupt authorities. (Just like Africa in the 60's and 70's) Not all Palestinians will go along with a peace treaty, so there'll be no shortage of handy 'martyrs,' and there'll be a money stream to fund them.

I think the best we can hope for is some decline in unrest about Israel, and a little 'looking the other way.'