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  • The Post-9/11 American Conundrum: How to Win the War of Ideas in the World of Islam
  • Ehsan Ahrari (bio)

In America’s global war on terrorism, phrases like “the war of ideas,” “campaign to win the hearts and minds of Muslims,” and “public diplomacy” describe important themes. Although the United States had grown accustomed to conducting highly successful public diplomacy to win the war of ideas during the Cold War, its record in this realm in the post-9/11 era has been far from impressive. In this essay I describe the new challenge and spell out possible ways of gaining an upper hand in this “war.”

A textbook definition of public diplomacy describes it as “a government’s process of communicating with foreign publics in an attempt to bring about an understanding of its nation’s ideas and ideals, its institutions and culture, as well as its national goals and current policies.” The US Department of State says that it uses public diplomacy as a way to “understand, inform, engage, and influence foreign audiences by reaching out beyond government-to-government relations to establish a foundation of trust upon which specific policy and societal issues can be addressed in a context of informed understanding and mutual respect.”1 [End Page 82]

The Nature of the Challenge

Muslim grievances related to the dynamics of American involvement in the Middle East and in the world of Islam in general were present throughout the Cold War years. However, the megaconflict of that era was the US-Soviet competition and ideological war on a global scale. Since the conclusion of the Cold War, and especially in the post-9/11 era, Muslim grievances have intensified.

As spirals of anti-Americanism continue to rise in the world of Islam, one major theme resonating in the United States is that it must win the war of ideas in order to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. One oft-repeated answer to the question, Why do they hate us? is that they hate us because of who we are, our way of life, and what we stand for. This type of self-gratifying explanation, misses a very important point. Reasons for intensification of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world have nothing to do with what the United States is all about or what it stands for. A variety of public opinion polls in Muslim regions has established that such feelings are constantly nurtured by what the US government does, in particular in the Middle East but also in the Muslim world at large.

It took the American policy makers more than fifty years to realize that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a core Muslim issue. What that means is that Muslims all over the world pay close attention to the sufferings of the Palestinian people, a majority of whom are Muslim. Consequently, one of the long-standing Muslim grievances regarding the United States is that it has all the political clout to bring about a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict but never uses it. However, upon careful examination, it becomes clear that utilizing that political clout to resolve an issue of the dimension and complexity of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – Israeli conflict is anything but easy. This conflict is about two clashing visions, perspectives, and world views. How these nations could live in peace, what specifics of their obdurate issue should be negotiated, and what postresolution Israel and Palestine should look like can be agreed upon only by the representatives of those two contending nations.

Many Muslims have had an overblown image of what the United States can really achieve regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel is dependent on [End Page 83] the United States for political, economic, and military assistance, but on the issue of security and the country’s future survival, not only does an Israeli leader have to conclude a realistic solution with his Palestinian counterpart, but, equally important, he must be able to persuade his countrymen that that resolution guarantees the security of the Jewish state. Similar burdens have to be borne and similar challenges have to be encountered by the Palestinian representatives. The best the...


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pp. 82-98
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2019
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