Communicating with the World of Islam
George P. Shultz
This publication seeks to answer three questions:
1. What can we learn from the broadcasting experience of the Cold War, particularly by examining the experiences of Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and the Voice of America?
2. What are current broadcasting efforts into the world of Islam and, in particular, into countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Egypt, and the Muslim communities of Europe?
3. What are the best ways of organizing U.S. efforts to communicate with the world of Islam?
Drawing on a recent summary of lessons learned from the Cold War broadcasting experience, we set out below a number of the reasons for the success of that experience, along with some discussion of those lessons.
1. Cold War broadcasting efforts were guided by a clear sense of purpose with emphasis on strategic objectives. The objectives were to constrain Soviet power (without provoking suicidal revolt), to keep alive hope of a better future, to limit tyranny, and to broaden the boundaries of internal debate, all in order to make the Soviet empire a less formidable adversary. These strategic objectives emerged after some fumbling in the early 1950s with notions of early "liberation," "rollback," and "keep[ing] the pot boiling."
2. Methods for appraising effectiveness were developed to guide fiscal allocations, but even more importantly, to suggest new ways of going about the effort.
3. A strong capability for sophisticated appraisal of the adversary was developed and a cadre of specialized researchers with deep area expertise was assembled. This information and analysis function was not envisaged at the outset; it was developed at Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) over time in response to operational need. It became in turn a major contributor to U.S. government and scholarly analyses.
4. Differentiated and tailored programs were developed for multiple audiences among and within target countries. Balanced world and regional news was a staple for all audiences. Programs for Communist elites included coverage of conflicts within and among Communist parties and reports on social democracy in Europe. Programs for non-Communist elites covered Western culture and intellectual life and, as internal dissent developed, amplification of that dissent. Programs for general audiences covered everything from agriculture to religion to labor to sports. Banned Western and internal music was featured. Willis Conover of Voice of America (VOA) introduced a generation of Russians and Poles to jazz; the RFE Hungarian Service "Teenager Party" program attracted a generation of Hungarian youth to RFE; and Western music attracted listeners in the other RFE target countries as well. In the USSR, the magnitizdat phenomenon introduced banned Soviet underground music to a wide public.
5. The programs were purposeful, responsible, and relevant to their audiences, and a great effort was made to develop their credibility. Events of the day were covered, but thematic programming was important as well (e.g., a series on parliamentary institutions in a democracy). Commentary was included along with straight news and news analysis, and audiences were attracted to star-quality commentators. It was essential that programs built and maintained credibility by reporting the bad news along with the good, as in coverage of Watergate and Vietnam. Responsible programming was, at its best, calm in tone and, after the early 1950s, it avoided transmitting tactical advice and, especially, any encouragement of violent resistance. Programming emphasized local developments and was attuned to the listeners through constant audience feedback obtained from traveler surveys and listener mail, and through continuous management of quality control.
6. The broadcast organizations believed in decentralization and in a large measure of autonomy for country broadcast units. This led to wider audiences and to the improvement and quality that typically stem from competition.
7. The broadcasts were accompanied by multiple-media operations beginning with balloon leaflets in the 1950s, and later including periodicals, Western books, and locally unpublished texts.
8. Funding was provided by Congress at levels that were adequate without being lavish and was subject to careful fiscal oversight.
9. Distance and insulation from official government policies were sustained and a tradition of journalistic independence nourished. The authorizing legislation, Section 2 of the Board for International Broadcasting Act of 1973, provided for "an independent broadcast media, operating in a manner not inconsistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States and in accordance with high professional standards," giving RFE and RL considerable journalistic flexibility. Advocacy of specific U.S. policies was not required and was, in fact, avoided. The BBC enjoyed similar autonomy in the British context. VOA's journalistic independence, affirmed in 1976 by law in the VOA Charter, was sometimes challenged by administration policy interference and complicated by the requirement to broadcast administration policy editorials.
10. The target audiences lived in an "information poor" environment subject to continual propaganda and censorship, which created receptive listeners, a key ingredient for success. East Europeans, in particular, felt especially cut off from the rest of Europe and were predominantly pro-American.
11. The participation of émigrés in broadcasts was handled carefully. This was no simple task because émigrés frequently exaggerate both positive and negative news. Nevertheless, the Cold War experience showed that it is possible and important to use known figures who are fluent in the language of the country in which a program is broadcast.
12. A flow of events offered opportunities because people denied information by propaganda sources are generally eager to know what is going on. Chernobyl is an interesting example because the endangered population got all its initial news about the event from the West and either nothing or a distorted view from the Soviets. Credibility makes it possible for broadcasters to take full advantage of these events.
In brief, Western broadcasts had a remarkable impact in the USSR and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. They reached mass audiences, as documented by traveler surveys at the time and confirmed now by evidence from the formerly closed Communist archives. And they reached essential elites, both within the Communist regimes and among regime opponents. The main keys to the mass and elite audiences were the credibility and relevance of the broadcasts. Government mechanisms were geared to providing public funding and oversight while ensuring management autonomy and journalistic independence.
The United States and other Western countries currently support a variety of broadcasting efforts (including radio, television, and Internet Web sites) to the Middle East. As distinct from the Cold War period, however, there is a plethora of indigenous TV and radio broadcasting, more in some countries than others. New radio and TV indigenous initiatives keep appearing. This represents the competition or, in some cases, an opportunity to make common cause in some manner, but it represents a much more complex problem than the Cold War problem.
The following listing, though certainly not exhaustive, captures a great deal of what the United States and other Western countries are broadcasting in the Middle East. We limit ourselves here to a listing; details may be found in the publications and Web sites of the various broadcasters. In the Arabic language, the United States currently supports Radio Sawa, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, and Al Hurra Television. The BBC World Service broadcasts in Arabic throughout the Middle East. Deutsche Welle has Arab-language radio and television programs. Other Arab-language international broadcasters include Kol Israel and French-sponsored Radio Monte Carlo.
In the Persian language, the United States supports Radio Farda, Voice of America radio, and Voice of America television. Other Persian-language international broadcasters include the BBC, China Radio International, Deutsche Welle, Kol Israel, NHK Radio Japan, Radio France International, and Voice of Russia.
The United States also supports a number of RFE/RL and VOA programs in the languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan: Uzbek, Kurdish, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu. The BBC broadcasts in Pashto, Uzbek, and Urdu. Deutsche Welle broadcasts in Afghan languages.
Various privately run endeavors exist as well. Los Angeles has a large Iranian community, and there are numerous stations run by expatriates that broadcast satellite TV programs to Iran. Layalina Productions, started in March 2002, is a private, non-profit corporation dedicated to creating informational and entertaining television programming to bridge the divide between the Arab Middle East and the United States.
In this section we survey briefly the current state of the Arab world and Iran, and then consider how the experience in Cold War broadcasting can be applied to current efforts to influence the world of Islam.
The Arab Lands
The United States is involved in a critical struggle against a complex movement of radical Islam that uses the tactics of terror in an effort to change the way the world works. U.S. military and economic efforts to deal with this problem are a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. As President Bush said in his 2005 inaugural address, "In the long-term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades. The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom."
There is a canon nowadays that dwells on the rampant anti-Americanism in Arab and Muslim lands. The pollsters — the Pew survey, the Zogby survey, and others — return from those lands with what have become predictable results: huge majorities in Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia proclaim an uncompromising anti-Americanism. Those results are then inserted into our national debate, and the received wisdom is that the anti-Americanism has been triggered by America's war against terror, by our toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and by the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict. This political judgment can be questioned, and there is a whole different way of reading this anti-Americanism. "They hate us, what's wrong with us?" ought to yield to another way of framing this large question: "They hate us, what's eating at their societies?" In critically important societies in the "broader Middle East," anti-Americanism is the diet that rulers provide for populations denied a role in the making of a decent public order. "Nations follow the religion of their kings," goes an Arabic maxim. The anti-Americanism in some Muslim lands is part of the rulers' strategy, an expression of the revolt against modernism plaguing Islamic societies today.
In freedom's confrontation with the Communist world, our broadcasting aimed at, and found, populations eager for an alternative source of information to compete with the official "truth." The Arab-Muslim world today presents a different challenge. This world is "wired" in the extreme, its public life a tumult of arguments and messages, its underemployed young people prey to the satellite channels, to the radical preachers, and to the steady drumbeats of anti-Americanism. A strategy to reach these populations would have to acknowledge the difficulty of this terrain.
The American dilemma is particularly acute in Arab and Muslim societies supposedly in our strategic orbit — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan come to mind. In the words of the distinguished historian Bernard Lewis, these lands could be described as pro-American regimes with anti-American populations. They contrast with Iran, where the rulers are anti-American but the population is on the other side. In the two most important Arab countries — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — the ground is treacherous. These two countries, it is fair to say, gave us Al Qaeda and the death pilots of 9/11. It is from the "deep structure" of these two societies that the modern phenomenon of Islamist terrorism emerged. Starkly put, the disaffected children of these two countries came together to strike at America as part of their campaign to bring down their entrenched regimes. A ruthlessly brilliant man of the upper reaches of Egyptian society, the physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, distinguished between what he called "the near enemy" (the Arab regimes), and "the distant enemy" (the United States). The terror against America was the choice made because our country was open and unaware of the dangers stalking it; because the Islamists could slip through our open borders, exploiting liberty and constitutional limits.
The Saudi and Egyptian custodians of power know that America was caught in the crossfire between themselves and their Islamists, but they never own up to it. They play with us a double-game: they provide us with some intelligence and access to their workings, and to the ways of their networks of terror, while scapegoating their domestic troubles by nurturing a culture and a public information system poisoned by a malignant anti-Americanism. You need only read Al-Ahram, President Hosni Mubarak's principal newspaper, to be treated to the ceaseless anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories. Likewise with the press and with the religious pulpits of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi hatred of modernism is fierce, and anti-Americanism now suffuses that country's life. There are thousands of liberal/secularist Saudis, many of them educated by our elite universities, but they are hunkered down and terrified, and, frankly, they don't see us as their friends. In their world, American power is tethered to the ruling dynasty, and this embattled minority is in a no-man's-land.
Our leaders know the depth, and the danger, of these two Arab settings. In both his seminal speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003 and in his State of the Union Address of 2005, President Bush spoke to, and of, these problematic allies in Riyadh and Cairo: "The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." We have been trying to wean these two nations away from their authoritarian ways. But these two regimes, it must be conceded, have been good at feeding the forces of anti-Americanism while cooperating with America in the shadows. A terrible price has been paid in the process: the modernist possibilities have been damaged in these two lands, and we, for our part, have paid dearly for dangers that came our way from purported allies.
Egypt is a proud nation, to be sure. But its pride stands in sharp relief against the background of dismal political, economic, and cultural results. Egypt's standing has eroded on all the indices that matter — political freedom, economic advance, transparency in economic and public life. Fairly or not, we are implicated in the deeds of the Mubarak regime. This is our second-largest recipient of foreign aid, but the aid has been squandered, and Egypt is in the throes of a deep political crisis. From Egypt, we hear a steady mix of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-modernism. Our embassy there has been caught up in an ongoing clash with the media and with the organs of the regime. What is said about America in that crowded and important country is a betrayal of the American aid given to Egypt. We have not been good at reaching Egyptians, or at challenging the conspiracy theories that have become a staple of their public life. We need to break out of this unhealthy embrace of the Egyptian regime. This is a pan-Arab matter, for Egyptians — in the main embittered, angry, and disappointed in their country — have turned on us in all arenas. They expressed no remorse for the terrors of 9/11, they opposed the Iraq war, and both the regime and the "civil society" were remarkably hostile to the Iraqi people's attempt to rid themselves of the legacy of Saddam Hussein's tyranny.
In Saudi Arabia, the challenge is equally daunting. Powered with a new windfall — in 2004, Saudi Arabia took in $110 billion in oil income — public life in that country is filled with a belligerent kind of piety. The religion is made to carry and express the revolt against reason, a determination to frighten the liberal minority within the land, and to spread Wahhabism's influence abroad. The regime has manipulated this religious bigotry, allowed it ample running room, and given it access to the mosques and to the religious institutions and philanthropies. But of late, there has been something of a retreat from this policy on the part of the House of Saud. The extremists have brought the fight onto Saudi soil. The tranquility of the realm has been shattered, and with it the smug belief that Arabia was immune to sedition and troubles. It must be this re-assessment that accounts for the new moderation of the Saudi-owned satellite television news channel Al-Arabiya (based in Dubai) and of the influential newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. (The former is owned by in-laws of the late King Fahd, while the latter is the property of King Fahd's full brother, Prince Salman, and presided over by Salman's son, Prince Faisal.) The Saudis may just be awakening to the monster of radicalism that they had fed and let loose on others.