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Mamoun Fandy on U.S. Public Outreach Efforts in the Arab World

A professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University, Mamoun Fandy discusses how the Arab world may receive new U.S. public outreach efforts. The following are extended excerpts of his interview with Terence Smith.

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  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What do you think of the public diplomacy campaign so far?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    I think the public diplomacy campaign has done pretty badly, thus far. I think public opinion has changed in the Arab and Muslim world due to the defeat of the Taliban, but not because of a conscious effort that's made by those who are running the public diplomacy campaign. The problem with public diplomacy is that, really, you need three things: You need a product, you need to package that product, and you need salesperson, preferably local, or at least people who are close to the local sentiment, to sell that message.

    I think we have a great product in terms of American values, and this is something that's in self-defense. We are fighting this war against terrorism because we were hit, and hit hard, and the world understands that. The problem is that we did not package it well. We do not have the people who are selling it. There are people, actually, who are volunteering to sell that message, namely columnists, liberal columnists in the Arab world and the Muslim world, and writers who requested interviews with the Secretary of State or with the President of the United States. Things like that.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What seems to be the problem? Is it conceptual, or practical, or what?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    I think we don't have a sense of the terrain. What kind of media outlets should we reach out? What media outlets are friendly to the American message versus ones that are anti-American? In a way, everybody jumped on the idea that the Qatari news channel, Al-Jazeera, was the "hip" thing to be on at the time, and the knee-jerk reaction in Washington was let's go for Al-Jazeera, without knowing the basic facts about Arab media consumptions, media habits, how audiences receive this message. For one, satellite channels, in general, have a fix only on 10 percent of the audiences in the Arab and Muslim world. Al-Jazeera is one amongst 20 satellite channels.

    So what you have is 90 percent of the audiences that are listening to other channels, that are land-based, or cable, but not satellite. You have many audiences listening to radio in North Africa. I have people who focus on print, depending where they are from. So, really, we have focused on a very small slice of the market, because some PR company told us that Al-Jazeera is "the big thing" and this is what's happening.

    Columnists in the Arab world and the Muslim world wrote about [Al-Jazeera] as bin Laden's channel. It's a channel that was really antithetical to the United States' message. So, in a way, we did not do, we did not have a fix on the audience.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    You say Al-Jazeera is antithetical to the United States. What do you mean?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    At the beginning of the campaign, if you watch Al-Jazeera like I do, in Arabic, you can see that the language is not friendly to the United States. There are many things in the reporting itself, that's really identified with the Taliban, in the way they broadcast bin Laden's message, the way they slice it to the audiences, the way they advertise it. All these things convey a message that this is a pro-Taliban [network], catering to the lowest sentiments in the Arab and the Muslim world that's anti-U.S.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So the American officials, in your view, made a mistake in giving interviews to Al-Jazeera and placing such an emphasis on it?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    It was an absolute mistake and, in my judgment, I think this is sort of a traditional reaction, sort of if you can't beat them, join them, and that really sort of comes from a complete ignorance of the nature of the medium in the Arab world, the nature of the audience who listens to what, and we need to know more.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    There are other, there are other initiatives underway, or getting underway. We have a former top ad agency executive as an Undersecretary of State now, Charlotte Beers, and she talks about advertising and promoting and branding the United States and its values the way you would any other product. Does this make any sense to you?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    I think it makes, it makes a lot of sense to Americans, but you have to ask the question, Does this branding translate to these audiences? I mean, you need a message that sticks, and you have to really have a good understanding of that audience. These, these people are not blank slates that you are going to imprint a message on. You're going to compete with other messages. So you really have to have an idea of what is out there, the level of anti-U.S. [sentiment] and on what issues, and where you can have a wiggle room, where you can really explain yourself.

    I was fortunate to meet the undersecretary, but my impression is that the State Department does not have a fix on the audience here.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Why?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    There are many ways of getting at this. It would be probably very good if the person carrying America's message to the Muslim world is a Muslim himself, or a native speaker of the language that he's broadcasting. So at least there is a level of trust, and the basic problem between America and the Muslim world is the gap in trust. You want the message to be believable and the believability of the message comes from credibility of the messenger, and that messenger is not there.

    It is good to tell the Muslim world that there are Muslims in America who are part of our government, who are doing well, and who also fight for America's cause, and they believe in this idea. These are not mere salespersons, but these are people who believe in these ideas. We don't have them.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What do you think of some of the ads that they've done and leaflets, and other things in Afghanistan? Some of them have caused some controversy, including one featuring an image of Osama bin Laden with his beard shaved and wearing a business suit. What kind of message is that going to convey to the Muslim and Arab people who see it?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    It conveys that, really, the United States does not have the resolve to get the man. It's becoming "smoke and mirrors," about whether bin Laden is with the beard or without a beard; it's no longer serious. And I think, in addition to any kind of media campaign, you have to show the resolve and the seriousness, for people to take you seriously.

    It was really undermining the effort in many ways. It was absolutely ill-conceived. Absolutely counterproductive. That particular photo was read as something that's silly.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    As you know this administration has turned to Hollywood for some support, and one of the first efforts, apparently, is going to be a video in which Muhammad Ali, the great boxer, is going to convey a message about American values and about America. And this would be translated into local languages. What do you think of that?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    I think Muhammad Ali is a great idea because Muhammad Ali has both the image and the credibility. People in the Muslim world see Muhammad Ali as a man who tells the truth. Even if the American government tells him to sell something to the Muslim world, he will tell the truth. So if Muhammad Ali tells the Muslims that America is a good place for Muslims, and I, as a Muslim, have done well in this country, they will believe him. So this is a very classic case where the messenger and the message mesh very nicely. That's a perfect idea.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Other new initiatives include broadcasts by the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe, which is reactivating Radio Free Afghanistan, and will begin, shortly, broadcasting 24 hours a day into Afghanistan, in Dari and Pashtu, and Farsi, Tajik, and other languages. Is that sensible from your point of view?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    Experiences of the past tell us that Voice of America has not done well, Radio Free Iraq has not done well thus far.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Why?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    Well, because, again, the issue of the execution, the issue of the message, the issue of the audience is still very central. Radio Free Iraq was very much similar to Saddam Hussein's satellite channel. I think as Saddam Hussein got into satellite television, he lost appeal in the Arab world, and probably Radio Free Iraq contributed to America's lack of appeal in the Arab world, because of the clumsiness of how to do the message and the lack of understanding of the audience.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    There is a new effort with a working title of the Middle East Radio Network, which is a deliberate effort to reach out to the younger generation, tomorrow's leaders in the Muslim world. What's your view of that?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    These are not also tomorrow's leaders. These are also tomorrow's hijackers. That's the group, and you need to have two viewpoints of that audience: one, a potential leader, and one, a potential dangerous element that will wreak havoc at some point. I think it's a good idea to reach that particular segment, because this is the most important segment in the Arab world and the Muslim world.

    It's very important to do this, for a variety of reasons. One, the majority of Arab and Muslim population is under the age of twenty-five. So, really, reaching a very wide audience. The style of reaching them in terms of entertainment and news, and light kind of info-tainment, if you will, is very important.

    Now, it depends, in the final analysis, on who will develop this message. I mean, what kind of broadcaster are you going to recruit to provide the news. Are they coming from, let's say, old stations in the Arab world, radio stations? This is your pool of recruitment. These broadcasters had their censor inside them because they lived under authoritarian regimes, in many ways. [They] still self-censor. Not only that but, also, they reflect the general sentiment in the public. If it were anti-American, they would not be able to shrug off that old persona.

    So how you select is a big challenge. You need to select people with a vision, people who have a vision not only for America and the Muslim world, and their relationship together, but also visions for their own societies, and if you rely on "old hands," you are not likely to succeed. That selection ought to be meticulous and careful and methodical, in many ways.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What are the possibilities of all of this effort? Is it possible, in your opinion, for the United States to have a positive effect on its image in the Arab and Muslim world?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    Absolutely; absolutely. It's absolutely possible, and it's possible in many ways. The United States does a lot of good in the region. It helps a country like Egypt with $2 billion a year. It helps the United States [that] the general public in Egypt knows that America is a friend of Egypt, instead of just focusing only on the negative side of American policies. So you need your partners.

    Now the problem is is that our partners in the region are businessmen and governments, and both of them duck when you need them. So we need to A, either connect with other segments of these societies, or B, have American companies ask their counterparts to really stand up for, for the source of their bread and butter.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The first message that this country wanted to get out, and the president repeated it a dozen times, is this is not a war against Islam. It's a war against terrorism. Has that message gotten across?

  • MAMOUN FANDY:

    I think President Bush's message [has] gotten across, but it got complicated by the media columns in the United States that made the connection, and this media is translated. The message is gotten across but it takes a lot of time.

    Let me compare it for you. President Mubarak, from 1985 till '95, ten years, tried to make that message — this is a war against terrorists, not a war against Muslims — within his own society, and he's a Muslim leader. And it took him a long time to make that message stick. So if you want this message to stick, you have to hammer at it and repeat it every day and every night. Every day, you open with it, saying this is not a campaign against Islam; it's a campaign against terrorism.