TOPICS > Nation

Public Diplomacy: Mamoun Fandy

January 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

TERENCE SMITH: Taking the long view — since Sept. 11, 2001 — the United States has made a concerted effort on several fronts, as you know, to project a more positive image of the country and its policies abroad, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world. Has it been effective?

MAMOUN FANDY: It has not. It has, I think thus far, failed actually even to capture the sympathies of the Arab and Muslim world that happened immediately after Sept. 11, that the, that moment, where the Arab and Muslim world was feeling and guilty and also sympathetic with the United States, that window that was there for a month or two seemed to have dissipated, that actually we have squandered the good will that the people in the Muslim [world] have had toward the United States.

TERENCE SMITH: Why and how?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think partly because the approach to packaging America was a bit crude, at least from the point of view of other people, the people who were really locally championing America’s position. And instead of arguing with sophistication about their own view of what America is within their own local context, and their own local language and all of that, then, they are confronted by this sort of very simplistic, crude notions of “We, in America, love Islam” kind of campaign. That did not play well.

Of course, certain dynamics took hold of the minds of the people in the region that, although in the first two months after Sept. 11, the whole world was focusing on what happened to the United States of America, but over time the Middle East and the Muslim world lapsed into its own traditional politics.

All of a sudden the Palestinian issue came to the fore, and the Iraq issue came to the fore, so the concern about America and threats to America, actually went back, receded tremendously. And, in fact, I would say that it generated more animosity toward America than friendship and good will.

TERENCE SMITH: Why?

MAMOUN FANDY: For one, I think some of it relates to the local dynamics of the Muslim world that many of these governments throughout the Muslim world live off blaming the other or the outside world to sustain their presence in their own societies and to account for their own local political failures, so America became a very easy target.

So sometimes official media throughout the Muslim and the Arab world sort of signed on the anti-American campaign, although these governments, in many ways, are very close to the United States, but somehow they felt this is useful for them to redirect the attention of their own people to outside forces, instead of blaming their own policy failures.

TERENCE SMITH: So you believe an opportunity was squandered?

MAMOUN FANDY: Yes. I think an opportunity was squandered because the whole environment, the whole mindset of the world, has changed immediately after Sept. 11.

People were willing to listen to a different view about America, and about the Americas, and the American concerns about the world, the threats to America and all of that, but over time that window closed. The local politics seemed to have taken hold of people instead of this whole good will for America seemed to have turned into bad wishes.

Actually, the number of supporters for Osama bin Laden, and the Islamic movements, and radicalism throughout the Muslim world seemed to have increased. The trends now, whether it was in Turkey or in Pakistan or in Egypt and other places, the Islam radicals seem to be even winning in election campaigns.

So there is sort of a backlash, and I think the way we handled ourselves, the way America handled itself throughout, seemed to have been ill-advised and did not comprehend these local dynamics and local realities.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk about some of the specific things that the U.S. has done. They launched, quite recently, an advertising campaign, television advertising, to project a more positive image of the life of individual Muslims living in the United States. You’ve seen those ads. Are they effective?

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, I think there are very serious problems with those ads. One, that all America’s friends throughout the United States refused to run these ads on their state-owned televisions. Even private television stations that America is in love with, like Al-Jazeera, for instance, also refused to run this ad. They called it political propaganda, and they did not run it. So the ad did not run in the Arab world, throughout the Arab world. No station ran this ad.

TERENCE SMITH: None whatsoever?

MAMOUN FANDY: None whatsoever.

TERENCE SMITH: Only in Indonesia?

MAMOUN FANDY: Only in Indonesia, and this is a very clear manifestation of practically the failure of this campaign because you are making a story about the success of Arabs in America and running it to an Indonesian audience, who does not identify with Arabs and their success and their failures.

And, also, there are those who claim that actually the ads in Indonesia contributed to anti-Americanism, in fact, incited many Indonesians to go to take up signs on the streets of anti-Americanism and demonstrate against America because they saw these ads as a way of shoving down their throats sort of American ideals, and they saw it as a sign of American hegemony in the Muslim world. So it really backfired. It backfired, terribly.

TERENCE SMITH: This reluctance or refusal of broadcasting authorities, government, most of them government run throughout the Arab world, what lies behind that?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think what lies behind that is that … they saw that as a way of really giving in to American involvement in their own countries. They saw it as a sovereignty issue, some of them, but I’m very surprised by private channels, for instance, being unable to run this.

TERENCE SMITH: Unable or unwilling?

MAMOUN FANDY: Unwilling. They are unable and unwilling because on the street in the Arab world, there is tremendous anger, and the fundamentalists seem to have taken hold of the Arab street in many ways. They have the power of intimidation. There’s this tremendous intellectual terrorism, if you will, in the Arab and Muslim world, and that to really speak differently, and talk about issues differently, you are in the minority, and you are not given much of an air time.

So most of these stations wanted not to alienate their own audiences because they are giving them what they want, and that’s a problem with the Arab media; that the Arab media does not give news as much as really cater to the lowest instincts of their audiences. They are, in many ways, sort of propaganda tools.

TERENCE SMITH: So they have been, so far as you know, completely unsuccessful in the Arab world.

MAMOUN FANDY: Completely unsuccessful, with the exception of the ads that appeared in the newspapers, and these ads in the newspapers, congratulating Muslims and wishing them good holy month of Ramadan that appeared very recently, but it says from the American people. But, usually, when you have an ad, you need to have somebody sponsoring that ad, so people look at this as something foggy, and they’re not clear who is behind this, and why it’s done this way, and what do they want from us and so on. So it’s, there is a cloud of suspicion around these ads. They do not appear genuine.

TERENCE SMITH: So, at least at this point, this attempt at television advertising has been a failure?

MAMOUN FANDY: It has been a failure, and there are numerous reasons for this. Ordinary Muslims throughout the Muslim world are unhappy with the image being projected on those ads because not all Muslims are bearded — and women covered and so on.

There are ordinary Muslims who look same way that you and I look and it’s like next-door neighbor. And the image that’s being presented on those ads from Washington is really of the veiled woman as a symbol of what an Islamic woman would look like, while girls and women in Egypt or in Indonesia or other places, they dress differently, and they look differently, and they resent that.

Also, the men that I saw in those ads, are not the people that I associate with my own values, as an American or as a Muslim. So the reaction, the way these ads are conceived, they are ill-conceived, and the way they are delivered, there is bad delivery. There is the conception of the ads is bad, and also there is no understanding of the terrain. There is no understanding of the political culture where these ads are going to run.

TERENCE SMITH: Have you been in the region and heard Radio Sawa?

MAMOUN FANDY: Yes. I just came back from the region from about a month tour throughout Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and I’ve listened to Radio Sawa in Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia, but I didn’t listen to it in Egypt because it’s not available in Egypt.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s not being broadcast in Egypt.

MAMOUN FANDY: It is not because the Egyptian government does not concede sort of FM stations for non-Egyptian entities.

So it’s by law they cannot have an FM station. They might have an AM station in Egypt, but it’s very difficult to listen to. But in Kuwait they have an FM station, as well as in Saudi Arabia.

TERENCE SMITH: And what did you think of what you heard, and what reaction did you hear, among others?

MAMOUN FANDY: But, I mean, the people I talked to who were probably [in their] 20s or 30s — they liked the music very much, but they were not impressed by the news, that in many ways, most of the people that they listened to are the old guys who used to work for the Voice of America, who are doing the same old thing. There hasn’t been the fresh, the freshness to Radio Sawa that the freshness comes from the music, from the style, but not in terms of content or in terms of being in tune with these young minds.

TERENCE SMITH: So the music may be hip, but the news is not?

MAMOUN FANDY: Yes, the music is hip, and the news is not, absolutely. That’s the impressions that I got.

TERENCE SMITH: Do they take the news broadcasts seriously? Are they credible?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think people listen to them, but there are a variety of news outlets throughout the region, and most of this generation you have to be aware that these people have access to variety of sources of news. This is the Internet generation, the people–you are appealing to a generation that’s absolutely clever, and they’re tapping into all kinds of things. They get their music from Radio Sawa, but they get their news somewhere else.

TERENCE SMITH: I see. So, in that event, what’s been accomplished?

MAMOUN FANDY: There is a lot of money being spent, but there is very little understanding of the audience, and their news consumption happens or their information consumption happens. I think these are things that are done on the spot without thorough thinking about who we are appealing to. I would have liked very much to have seen studies about that target audience before I launched a campaign like that.

Had they taken the time to do this, probably there would have been tremendous success, if the whole campaign was tailored toward that particular audience. But it was, the campaign was tailored toward an imaginary Arab, an imaginary Muslim that never existed.

TERENCE SMITH: The people behind Radio Sawa, Norman Pattiz and others, tell us that they’re number one among listeners in that age group, for example, in Iraq, and they’re broadcast into Iraq.

MAMOUN FANDY: I haven’t been to Iraq. I can’t, I can’t vouch to that, but I can tell you I know the director of Radio Sawa, the young Arab who’s running the station responsible for programming, and he has a lot of problems himself he admits it, that many of the old people that came from Voice of America, he cannot get rid of them, he cannot even change them. He cannot change their cultural mindset. These are his own words.

The situation is not as colorful and bright as probably as has been presented to you about Radio Sawa.

TERENCE SMITH: Their argument is they are being listened to by a significant portion of this target audience of younger Arab and Muslim listeners.

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, my own observations are based on really sort of long conversations with these age groups in two countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and my feeling was I came out with the conclusion that people were listening to Radio Sawa in terms of music, but in terms of political programming, in terms of culture programming, they go somewhere else, and they give you reasons why they go somewhere else.

TERENCE SMITH: Namely?

MAMOUN FANDY: Namely, they are more comfortable reading longer pieces, in terms of news analysis, and the Internet gives them that; they enjoy the music in their cars, but in terms of getting their political news, they will get their local news from their local station. They get their local news from their local newspaper.

As far as their international news, they get it from the BBC and from credible organizations that have a history of credibility throughout, and the BBC comes on top there.

TERENCE SMITH: Do they consider the news on Radio Sawa to be propaganda?

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, there was sort of a campaign that started out in the Arab world, in the Arab press, about Radio Sawa — before Radio Sawa landed — that basically accused Radio Sawa of being American propaganda. So the whole playing field was not fairly arranged in favor of Radio Sawa.

Radio Sawa landed a negative campaign against them, so it’s an uphill battle. It’s been an uphill battle for them to really actually move beyond that image of being an American propaganda tool.

TERENCE SMITH: There is a specific proposal to launch a Middle East television network through the region that would also attempt to project a positive image of the United States. Is that feasible in your opinion?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think it does not work that way. If people looking for long-term impact on the Middle East, I think you might spend the money you’re spending on television and propaganda, and transform the educational system throughout the Arab world which is an absolute disaster.

You need to actually change the software to change the Arab minds, and you don’t change them by television because television coming from America, also, will be seen differently because these people are already exposed to American television. They know of PBS, they watch sometimes a variety of programming, BBC, and they watch NBC, and CBS, and CNN –

TERENCE SMITH: Which they receive through satellite?

MAMOUN FANDY: Exactly. They’ve already been exposed to this. So to tailor a whole channel focused on the Arab world only, just does not sound sort of independent enough to be listened to. It does not have the right mix that they get from other TV stations in America.

I think America is better off depending on what it has already. The American media in the Arab world has tremendous credibility.

TERENCE SMITH: It has?

MAMOUN FANDY: Tremendous credibility, I think, as far as news is concerned.

People might tell you it’s biased one way or another, but nonetheless American newspapers, and American syndicates are throughout Arab newspapers. So this is something that people admire because of the level of professionalism involved in that.

But when you go with the very unprofessional job that’s working for the government, people will not listen to you because these people have very bad experiences with their own governments and with lying from their governments.

So they are very suspicious of governments or any government effort, and they are looking for American media to escape that. And the irony of this is that instead of getting independent American media, they will be getting another government talking to them, which is something that they will be running away from.

TERENCE SMITH: And suspicious of…?

MAMOUN FANDY: Absolutely suspicious of because governments, in the minds of Muslims, lie through their teeth day and night, and that’s been the testimony of their own lives and their own experiences. To add another government voice to the mix, and a heavy government at that, a powerful one, is very frightening.

TERENCE SMITH: So you’re arguing that really the only effective way would be independent American media perhaps more widely distributed in the region.

MAMOUN FANDY: I think independent American media widely distributed and also engaging Arab journalism and try to raise it to American standards of professionalism by giving, planning programs to journalists, young journalists, as well as even senior editors, bringing them here or putting the programs out there to raise the standards of journalism, whereby information matters, specific, factual information matters.

But the Arab world now is mired in this whole propaganda from one side or the other, and information is being missed throughout. People try to look for American wire service to look for information. And if you look at any Arabic newspaper today, you will find the front page of that newspaper is wire service or syndication of the Washington Post or the New York Times. The Arabs have already been exposed to American reporting.

What you need to do is really sort of have a long-term vision to create these connections between Arab journalism and American journalism, and bring them along. But to engage in this sort of old ways of psychological warfare, and propaganda and all of that, it does not work in the 21st century.

TERENCE SMITH: So, if I understand you properly, you feel that since Sept. 11, the whole American effort in broadcasting — at least in terms of broadcasting, and advertisements and so forth — has been a complete failure?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think it has, it has been a complete failure, yes. I would agree with that assessment, that it has not actually contributed..

TERENCE SMITH: When you look at the totality, how would you characterize it –

MAMOUN FANDY: Looking at the totality of it, I think that the American campaign to inform the Muslim world about America has not only been just a failure, but it has contributed tremendously to anti-Americanism in the region.

TERENCE SMITH: So not only a failure, but counterproductive.

MAMOUN FANDY: It’s counterproductive.

And I think if you go out to the Muslim and the Arab world and do focus groups, before and after viewing these ads, you will realize that actually people walk out of these ads with a negative view of the United States, because the image of the United States has always been a softer and gentler nation.

It is not in-your-face kind of nation. It is not a country that’s associated with colonialism or with shoving down people’s throats certain things that they don’t like. It has been about liberty and choice, and the image that’s being presented through these ads is about really sort of one mind-set.

It’s very reminiscent of what, the kind of propaganda the Arabs used to get from the Soviets, so it’s really against everything they learned about what America is.

They would like to absorb America on their own terms.

They are already engaged in a world that has American symbols all over the place, from newspapers, from products, and McDonald’s and other things, that America is all over the place and surrounds them in everything they do, and they’re getting their own sense of what America is. The moment you package it for them, they become very suspicious.

TERENCE SMITH: And this, despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars.

MAMOUN FANDY: I think this is wasted money. I mean, if any smart person thinking about this campaign should have thought about the audience, what do they like, and what they don’t like, what their intellectual temperament, the kind of their habits of receiving information, and the timing of receiving information and so on.

All of these media studies are available. There are enough media studies that are done on the Arab world by anthropologists of communications in all American universities. Unfortunately, that campaign has failed to tap into these talents and these experts to tell them what the field looks like, what the terrain looks like, what they are getting into looks like, what is the best way to avoid these pitfalls.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, what is? What could the United States do more effectively than it is doing to improve its image in the Arab and Muslim world?

MAMOUN FANDY: Well, I mean, the short of it is really it’s not about the image, as much as it’s about the substance. You can’t really portray something that’s bad and turn it into good via television or via imaging. You have to have at least bring the image and the substance a little closer.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean by “the substance” in this case? Are you talking about –

MAMOUN FANDY: I mean, the policy, the American policies in the region they are badly perceived throughout the Muslim world. America is seen as an ally with the bad guys throughout, and–

TERENCE SMITH: Namely?

MAMOUN FANDY: Whether they are local dictators or local governments that people are very suspicious of sometimes or align themselves with the various Islamic movements that America now hates, and there are many people in the region believe that this whole political Islam was invented by America in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets.

So, in many ways, America has always aligned itself with the bad guys. It’s about time to really think about one central question…–

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think the fundamental problem is…

MAMOUN FANDY: I think it is not just one problem, but the first problem is that America is working in an area where America’s enemies, in some cases, have greater advantage.

For example, right now America is talking about Iraq, in particular.

Now, if you put the Iraqi propaganda and the American propaganda together in the Arab world, Saddam comes on top because, [first], his people speak Arabic, they write in Arabic, they are very talented in terms of their understanding of what buttons they push in terms of the local people. So your adversaries have better advantage.

Your friends are very weak, and they are not willing to take up the issues and take it to their own people. They would rather be quiet about it. So this is practically the competition in terms of the media field itself. But there are issues of policy that even people who are in the middle, audiences in the middle, are not convinced that you are on the good side of it, and the Arab is really questioning your perceived, as all America is being perceived, as not on the side of neutrality and peace, but supporting Israel, right or wrong.

There is no daylight of difference that they see between Israel and the United States, and you need to really sort of separate the two; that the United States is a peace broker, rather than a party to the conflict.

That’s why it’s being seen as a party to the conflict, it’s being painted as party to the conflict, and you need to break away from that.

TERENCE SMITH: When we spoke a year ago, you were quite positive in the demonstration tape that you listened to from Radio Sawa.

MAMOUN FANDY: Uh-huh.

TERENCE SMITH: Where did it go wrong?

MAMOUN FANDY: I was positive, and I thought probably because there are some people who knew the languages of the region who are heads of that, they might do well, but as the whole thing unfolded, it seemed that on the ground it did not have the same impact. And I think there is a good argument to be made on the disconnect between the jazzy, kind of exciting music and the dull news. There is, with something sort of, it has a, it’s a “Janus Face” kind of thing. It has two faces; one that’s news, which is not doing well, and one that its music is exciting, and you need to bring the two together.

You need to also have a sense of your audience. Your audience is very sophisticated. You are targeting the 25- to 30-year-old people who really have alternative media to get their news from, and thus far I think probably it has to do with newness there. It has not gained the credibility that’s news, that’s connected with news or with the BBC, where the music is really sort of…it’s a relay station.

It’s carrying American entertainment that’s already brand name in the minds of the audience. So they know it, they trust it, it appeals to them. But the news is something that they don’t know, they don’t trust, they do not have a history with it, and it might take a long time for this take hold.

Probably, it would have been better for the news side to do partnership with radio stations that already have successful and credible history like Monte Carlo, BBC and other things that has been the mainstay of news for some of these young folks.

TERENCE SMITH: For a while, you advised, in an informal way, the State Department in their efforts to design a public diplomacy campaign. What happened to that? Did they listen to what you had to stay?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think they listened early on, but somehow, over time, I think that I lost touch with them or I didn’t get any calls from them, so it just petered out, I guess. It’s not — there was no follow up.

TERENCE SMITH: If this ad that they have made and shown, at least in Indonesia, is actually counterproductive, in your view, is the idea of making an ad flawed in itself or is there an advertisement for the United States that would work?

MAMOUN FANDY: I think you just hit it right on the head.

Political advertising throughout the Muslim and the Arab world has not been a tradition. It is not something like the US presidential campaign, that politics, political advertising, moving into television, is not something that people have associated with their local politics.

TERENCE SMITH: And so they’re not prepared to accept it?

MAMOUN FANDY: They’re not prepared to accept the very form of political advertising. I mean, there is government propaganda that they got used to as part of the whole mix of state-owned televisions throughout the region, but straight political advertising, as you see here in the United States, has not been part of their political culture or their culture of consumption of information.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

MAMOUN FANDY: So the idea itself is absolutely alien.

TERENCE SMITH: You could argue, of course, that all of state-run television is, in fact, propaganda for the regime that runs it.

MAMOUN FANDY: It is, it is a propaganda, but the propaganda is done in a way that’s in keeping with the local political culture. It is propaganda within the entertainment shows. It’s propaganda in the delivery of the news, and the items of the news, and the news agenda and all of that. The whole place is just soaking in propaganda, government propaganda, but that particular format, that particular style of propaganda is absolutely alien to the Arab and Muslim world.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, you know, it seemed to me that whenever I saw state-run Arab television, it was ceaseless promotion of the leaders..

MAMOUN FANDY: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: — and the leadership –

MAMOUN FANDY: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: — of a country. Endless pictures of the leaders greeting one another at the airport.

MAMOUN FANDY: That’s absolutely right, and it would have been fantastic if you’d shown pictures of George W. Bush shaking hands with the presidents of all of these countries that America is friendly. They’ve been part of that. They know that, and probably they would have accepted that.

TERENCE SMITH: But don’t they discount it as well?

MAMOUN FANDY: They discount it, absolutely. But what I’m trying to say is you have to work with what they know, to really just start a new model altogether, to tell them what to know and how, at least in this case, the chances of success were very slim, and indeed we can’t tell really because these are ads that were refused by all Arab stations, and they did not make it into the audience, so probably you have no way of assessing it.

But my gut feeling is that the format is new, the style is new, it will–it’s attempting to graft something in a different soil, and that soil is not friendly, and it will not grow, it will not take hold.