Friday, December 04, 2009

Strategic Communication and "The Narrative"

In a recent op-ed piece, Tom Friedman argued that American Muslim Nidal Malik Hasan was overcome by “The Narrative”, or the bogus “cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11.” Though his contacts to terror groups are tenuous, Hasan was enticed to his own form of jihad which resulted in 13 American deaths at Fort Hood. In essence, Hasan bought into a deadly anti-American philosophy that has persisted unchecked and appears to be growing.

“The Narrative” states that the since 9/11, the U.S. has declared a war on Islam – not just terrorists but all Muslims. The U.S. and Israel are actively interested in keeping Muslims down religiously, economically, and politically. The west, is responsible for the lack of opportunity in Muslim countries; those governments themselves are not to blame.

Facts clearly show otherwise. Attacking occasional strategic and tactical blunders is one thing; assaulting American ethics and goals is quite another. Friedman acknowledges that after 9/11, “we did some stupid and bad things… [b]ut for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.” But that’s not the message being received by most Arab and Muslim communities today. The masses of uneducated, powerless, and hopeless young people in these countries have found their scapegoat. Al Qaeda doesn’t need defined networks when “The Narrative” is ever-present: frustrated Muslim males just commit the attacks for them.

We as a country have yet to determine the proper response to such propaganda. Mosque preachers denounce America but the line is often ambiguous as to what justifies a First Amendment content-based restriction on dangerous speech. Web sites may fuel extremism but also serve as a counterterrorism tool for intelligence analysts to track site visitors. And how exactly can or should we respond to content emanating from outside United States jurisdiction, often from Arab-government owned media outlets?

We’ve recently discussed strategic communication, defining it as “a way of persuading other people to accept one’s ideas, policies, or courses of action.” It is a process by which a state argues to the world that its particular view on how things ought to be is compelling and to be followed. However much the U.S. is communicating to the Muslim and Arab world, its statements are being overwhelmed. Major Hasan’s case proves a particularly striking example, since he was American born and raised and part of the usually patriotic military establishment.

The question arises: should the U.S. seek to sway public opinion of Muslims both at home and abroad to counteract the negative messages that have continually proven to be harmful? Put another way, should the U.S. actively engage in putting out a different message, or would be doing so merely be “propaganda”?

As already emphasized, the major issues concerning legal and law enforcement responses have no clear cut answers. At minimum, however, we could put out a few messages to undermine “The Narrative’s” effectiveness. First, we can reiterate that the majority of Muslims being killed today in this overarching conflict are at the hands of jihadist suicide bombers, terrorist-placed IEDs, etc. – not by Americans. Second, we can show how America respects people of all religions, and how we have happy and successful Muslims enjoying being an equal part of American society. Third, we could review the messages being sent out in “soft power” formats (American films, music, publications, etc.) to ensure that the collective message is not one that would sour our perception in the Muslim world any further.

Strategic communication is an issue of marketing the U.S. in a compelling way. By not responding, we are allowing our enemies to take advantage of our civil liberties to form internal dissent, and allowing a dangerous message to pervade foreign societies continually hostile towards us.

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