|November 7, 2001||atimes.com|
The propaganda war, and why bin Laden is winning it
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or, if you really want to be blunt, propaganda. Whatever it's called, formulating what this war is really about in the minds of the world's billion Muslims will be of decisive and historic importance. Yet every expert on Islam, every analyst of what is happening in the Muslim world, agrees that Osama bin Laden has gained the initial advantage in the propaganda struggle by arguing that this is a war against Islam, rather than, as President George W Bush correctly says, a war against terrorism.
Former senior US official Richard Holbrooke has voiced his concern about the propaganda war being waged by the Taliban, who use the Americans' bombing errors and the accidental deaths of civilians to stir up support for themselves in the Islamic world.
On the economic front, the US is not faring any better. Gross domestic product shrank at an annual rate of 0.4 percent in July, August and September. Bush blamed the decline on sagging consumer confidence in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the US retaliation. A few days later came the news that the US unemployment rate surged to 5.4 percent in October from 4.9 percent in September. In October, the labor market shed 415,000 jobs, the biggest drop since 1996. Manufacturing orders are following suit and consumer confidence is at its lowest levels.
If, as Bush said at the Shanghai Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in October, this is a war between those who believe in the free market and economic development (the US and company) and their opposition (terrorists) the US is not faring well. The global economy, which was already troubled before September 11, is moving into a slump and possibly a recession as a result of the US's problems and the inability of its allies and leading economies, Japan and Germany, to overcome their troubles.
The anthrax scare, with its victims and hoaxes around the world, is spreading a deep sense of insecurity. Nobody who touches mail can feel safe, and even the air-conditioned air we breath can't be trusted. Everybody is under attack. Arguably, there has never been a threat so wide yet so inscrutable. During the Cold War, a nuclear bomb attack threatened greater destruction, but the threat was more definable, and political argument between Washington and Moscow increased or decreased the risk. By reading a newspaper one could assess the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust.
The September 11 attacks and the anthrax letters are different. Their destruction is selective, not total, and depends on irrational fate, or if you wish, on God's will, and thus they belong to the kind of threats of those sects which tell people "Repent or you shall die". This kind of threat is itself an act of proselytism. The people who stopped taking the subway now rather than a few years ago when the terrorist gas attack took place in Tokyo seem to be moved by a transcendent fear of going underground.
Against these fears, this sense of insecurity or confrontation with a God who can be merciful and spare one but whose wrath can wrench one's life, the political arguments seem to be inadequate.
The APEC meeting in Shanghai has endorsed the first ideological platform of the anti-terrorist coalition, endorsing a defense of global economic growth. This is a first line of defense, finding a political lowest common denominator among all countries. But it doesn't touch, for instance, the Taliban supporters in Pakistan who are fomenting rebellion in that country. Their agenda is not economic development, but safety.
There is a dichotomy between how the Western world sees itself, as providing opportunities and freedoms, and the perceptions of others, who feel the developed world denies these opportunities to them. Surely it is necessary to bridge the gap between what Americans say at home - liberty, rule of law, and democracy - and what they practice in foreign policy, which is felt to be very different.
On October 20, Mushahid Hussain wrote in Asia Times Online: "What was common among a diverse group of leaders such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Fidel Castro or Sukarno? They were all great admirers of America and the American Revolution prior to assuming office. They all looked up to the United States of America, whose 20th century role and ideology had been defined by Woodrow Wilson as supporting the 'right of self-determination' of subjugated peoples and colonies." (See Anti-Americanism has roots in US foreign policy)
This gap was clear over 2,000 years ago to the Chinese philosopher Han Feizi, who simply argued that the means to take power are different from the means to retain power. And so this gap exists, and it is at the very basis of the Chinese Communist Party, which came to power with a revolution and won people over with slogans, but now holds onto power by denying revolution and pursuing a different path. Yet its denial of revolution can't come into the open, because the leadership would immediately de-legitimize itself. In a way, the US faces the same conundrum of the Chinese Communist Party. Both were born out of a revolution which inspired many people in their countries, but one can't rule with revolution. The effort to make these two ends meet is bound to be constant and without permanent solution, unless it is that of accepting the conundrum and living with it.
For China, living with this conundrum is somewhat simpler than it is for the US, as the Chinese accept the old Han Feizi adage, and the communist veneers can thus be shed layer after layer over time. The US, conversely, has used revolution and order as levers for its domestic and foreign policies for more than a century. Both levers have their advantages and drawbacks. It seems impossible to totally renounce one and choose the other. But certainly work must be done to reach out to those who are inspired by the American dream, but are deprived of its benefits.
One aspect of how this gap can be bridged is clear, in theory: economic development. However, it is not clear how economic development can be achieved. The present plight of many Asian economies, whose development was inspired and even protected and coaxed by the US, is sometimes attributed to American financiers who were perceived to have siphoned off Asian wealth for their own selfish profit. This idea was somehow reinforced by the world press, which is led by the US and which first lauded the Asian economies as models of development and then lambasted them as houses of cards and corruption.
Long-term and wide-spread economic development is a very strong disincentive to terrorism, while economic difficulty can bear all kinds of monsters. This, after all, was the idea that inspired the Marshall Plan after World War II. It recognized that the difficulties suffered by Germany after World War I created the conditions for the rise of Hitler.
But now there is a vicious circle. Terrorism is dampening economic confidence and slumping First World economies do not have the resources to dispense aid to the Muslim world, which would help rein in the growing sympathy for the terrorists.
A further link between lack of development and the rise of fundamentalism can be found in the collapse of the oil-led economies of Arab countries. The failure of the cartel of oil sellers - OPEC - in the confrontation with the cartel of oil buyers in the early 1970s can be seen in retrospect as the failure to confront the West on an economic level. This defeat of the oil sellers by economic means could have contributed to the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism first erupted in Iran, a country which, though a strong voice in OPEC, had been most sympathetic toward the buyers, the West (see Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal, US 2000, pp 664-700). In hindsight, this did not help Iran in the late 1970s when the oil crisis was overcome by the West. This was also the destiny of other oil-producing countries like Algeria, caught in the vise of declining oil prices and rising population.
In this situation, the first victims of Muslim fundamentalism are Muslim moderates. The moderates are caught between the rock and the hard place, blamed by non-Muslims for being Muslim, and by fundamentalists for being moderate. Tolerance is in fact a tenet of Islam; whereas Christians send to hell Satan and all sinners, the Koran makes it clear that Satan will be forgiven on the Last Day. Some sufis have gone as far as to argue that Satan fell from grace because he loved God more than any other angel (see Karen Armstrong A History of God, Great Britain 1993, pp 316-319). This long-term tolerance is proved by centuries of Islam, in stark contrast to centuries of Christian intolerance and religious persecution in Europe.
Thus, tolerant Islam should now be encouraged and supported by the West in its resistance against intolerance.
At present, however, few Muslim countries have effective democracies or highly tolerant societies. At the two poles of the world, the democracies of Turkey and Indonesia should be bastions of development, but their economies are not faring well. In other countries like Algeria and Egypt, there is the concrete risk that full-fledged democracy would spell the beginning of the end, as fundamentalist parties probably would win elections and turn their countries to extremism. Obviously, policies and efforts should be made to bolster their democracy and development, but so far the results have been lackluster.
Iran, the country that set in motion the long wave of fundamentalism, is a particular case. Although still supporting the Hizbollah extremists some 20 years after Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, the country appears tired of holy wars, and a growing part of its young population supports greater religious and social openness. Many recent missions from Western countries have tried to enlist Tehran's support for the war in Afghanistan. That is something that can't come easily or quickly, as politics in Iran are still dominated by anti-Western rhetoric and fears of Western traps.
But if Osama bin Laden's propaganda war in the Muslim world is to be defeated, the grand coalition against terrorism should list moderate Islamic forces in Iran. The bet is that those forces, thus listed, could become even more moderate with the economic development of their country. This could re-ignite the confidence of the leading economies and help the world out of its present slump.
Fundamentalism started in Iran and it would be easier to solve the problem there than anywhere else. Besides, crudely speaking, Iranians subjected themselves to many years of fundamentalism, they are largely fed up with it, and are trying to grow out of it.
The coalition against terrorism has enlisted Russia and China, which have better channels of communication with Tehran than does the US. The coalition could use these assets to gain greater support from Iran and speed up local reforms.
In summary, the US can't move alone in the propaganda war against fundamentalism. It simply doesn't have enough credibility in the Islamic world. America is the champion of the West, which many Muslims, including moderates, resent because it is largely Christian and anti-Islam. To wage a war on these premises could easily lead to a war of religion, which the Bush administration doesn't want, and which could end in the West's defeat. Would the Pope, head of the Catholic Church, be credible if he were to launch a propaganda war against Islamic fundamentalism? President Bush is the "pope" of the West, and his support for moderate Muslims weakens their position in the Islamic world.
In a way, the long-term challenge for America is to stop being the champion of the West and to champion a truer, larger melting pot in which Muslims (including the many American Muslims) appear more clearly as part of the American world. In the short and medium term, the propaganda war can be waged, and won, with the support of countries not so patently "Western". The APEC countries which met in Shanghai last month are a very good platform for this, and they should build bridges to Iran. Iran could provide the further benefit of decreasing its support for Shi'ite extremists working in the Middle East, helping ease the tension in the Israeli-occupied territories.
This is difficult and full of pitfalls, but, as Holbrooke argues, without a victory in the propaganda war, a victory against terrorism will be impossible. And without the active participation of moderate Muslims and non-Western countries, a victory in the propaganda war is equally impossible. Defeat here would leave the world facing even greater difficulties and economic crisis.
((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Front |China | Southeast Asia | Japan | Koreas | India/Pakistan | Central Asia/Russia | Oceania
Business Briefs | Global Economy | Asian Crisis | Media/IT |Editorials | Letters | Search/Archive
back to the top
©2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd.
Room 6301, The Center, 99 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong