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US promotion of Democracy in Muslim nations

WAIS Vice Chairman Maurice Harari writes: "As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 19, the Bush administration is sketching out a campaign "to preach democracy across the Middle East and persuade school systems to prevent the creation of terrorist mind-sets in more young people". As outlined by a top State Department adviser the plan is part of a new public diplomacy initiative being formulated by Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive. Her mission is to convince Muslims that the United States is fighting terrorism, not their religion.

While the ultimate goals of this program are sound, the delicacies of implementing it are formidable and require extreme sensitivity and diplomatic skills as well as a real understanding of Islamic cultures and societies. Moving beyond the specific individuals who might be involved in promoting this type of program on behalf of the U.S. and hopefully in very close collaboration with, or better yet through local leaders who have the respect of their fellow-citizens, we need to worry about making sure of our own "mind-sets" of young people in the U.S. It is regretful to note that despite very laudable efforts and successes on the part of several of our institutions of higher learning, the level of "global awareness" and "intercultural sensitivity" on the part of our student population in the U.S. is not impressive! Sadly, this is also the case at the pre-collegiate levels. We would be missing a key ingredient in the success of our promotion of a positive image of the United States in the world if we did not attend to the global awareness and intercultural sensitivity of our own U.S.students across the board. In addition to which we have some 500,000 international students in our midst many of whom witness and deplore the ignorance of other cultures and societies they observe directly in their fellow students from the United States. While it is abundantly clear that extreme religious fundamentalism is causing major tragedies in the world, it would be a mistake to simply look at the terrorism of Islamic radicals as the principal source of evil originating outside the U.S. We have much to gain as a society, well beyond being a superpower, as a positive and ethical moral force in the world, by attending very seriously to helping the "mind-sets" of our student population of all ages incorporate a reasonable degree of knowledge and sensitivity about the diversity of cultures and religions in the world and the global interdependency of the human race. The task involved should not be that of educators alone but should involve the efforts of parents, the media, houses of worship, business and other sectors of society --- all those who care about improving the quality of life for all and promoting a more peaceful world. Our strategy for dealing effectively and long-term with terrorism should incorporate helping the "mind-sets" of our own as well as those of other societies. Our real challenge is to project an image of the United States as a people who can simultaneously enjoy the fruits of materialism while exuding and practicing the values of a people committed to the welfare of all humanity."

My comment: Maurice, who has spent his life as an administrator in US higher education, is originally from Egypt, and is therefore very sensitive to this issue. Commercial YV, which plays an important role in forming the mindsets of the younger generation in countries around the world, bears a heavy responsibility. It is significant that the new Undersecretary of State of whom Maurice speaks is an advertising executive, whose appointment raised eyebrows. This is not an entirely new `phenomenon. When I was in Tokyo some years ago, as a result of the stress in advertising techniques, the old US library had been dismantled and replaced with a pop culture operation. A man from Mars, watching commercial TV, would sympathize with the Taliban hostility to it. The prostitution of that potentially marvelous instrument TV into something "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" is the work of the advertising executives of this world. We have C-Span in the US, and there are similar channels in Europe, but they are voices crying in the wilderness.

Ronald Hilton - 1/20/02