Winning Muslim Hearts and Minds Must Begin at Home - In America

Sarwar Kashmeri

Posted Dec 27, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Winning Muslim Hearts and Minds Must Begin at Home - In America

by Sarwar Kashmeri

Winning hearts and minds of the world’s billion Muslims, has been a top American priority since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and harnessing some of the best minds in and out of the administration in this quest, America is more despised today in Islamic countries than ever before.

One important reason, I believe, is because the target audience for this critically important project was incorrectly defined. Instead of focusing on hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, we ought to focus on the increasingly biased and negative attitude displayed by a growing number of Americans towards Islam and Muslims. Once this changes, the Internet and its powerful distribution channels will take care of winning hearts and minds around the world far more effectively than any Washington directed propaganda project.

Let me give some examples to support my argument.

In a recent discussion at one of New York’s most prestigious clubs my dinner companion, by all accounts a prosperous and well educated money manager, made it quite clear she’d be very happy to never see a Muslim speaker at the club because “all they want to do is kill us.” A not infrequently heard generalization these days.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was recently asked, given his position that “jihadism” is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today, if he would consider including qualified Muslims in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, Romney’s answer: “I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.”

Or consider the plight of Abe Dabdoub, an Arab-American engineer and plant manager in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dabdoub’s pride at becoming an American citizen last year was short lived. Much of his family lives in Canada and he visits them often. Since August 2006 Dabdoub has been fingerprinted 14 times, body searched 9 times, handcuffed 4 times and isolated in a separate detention room 13 times. His wife is also subjected to the same scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union believes Mr. Dabdoub’s experience is widely shared by those with names that sound Middle-Eastern and is based on the profiling of Arabs and Muslims at border crossing points.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of such reports as they make their way around the world on newspapers and the Internet. Is it any wonder that the U.S. funded Hearts and Minds project has been such a failure?

I’d propose expanding the initiative taken by Montana resident David Grimland, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in countries such as Turkey, India, and Bangladesh that have large Muslim populations. He says he was saddened and horrified at the way the American media has depicted Islam and Muslims after 9/11. “I decided then that I’d spent 30 years telling the American side of the story, and now its time for me explain Islam to non-Muslims, and try to balance the negative opinions that have been created,” he told me. And he’s been doing this for the last two years at universities, churches, schools, meeting halls, and even Indian Reservations. Grimland draws large audiences—at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, a few weeks ago he found himself speaking to one group for three hours, another for four.

“I’m going to ask you, at least for this evening, to try to put on a pair of Muslim glasses and see what the world looks like,” he tells his audiences. With the exception of a handful of people who come with preconceived ideas most of the audiences I have spoken to, in Montana and elsewhere, come to listen and learn. They may not always agree, but they are interested in my side of the story,” he says. Grimland has begun to draw national attention.

I am convinced he is drawing the crowds he does because he is an experienced American diplomat speaking to Americans. His message has a power that Madison Avenue inspired messages, movies, or panels of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders discussing why all religions are the same can never have.

So my suggestion to Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and James K. Glassman, the new secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs: Use those Hearts and Minds millions to hire as many retired American Foreign Service officers and diplomats as the money will buy, and saturate America with their presentations. As the Muslim world sees the attitude of Americans change, their hearts and minds will too.

Sarwar A. Kashmeri, is a corporate strategic communications advisor, Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, and author of the America and Europe After 9/11 and Iraq: The Great Divide. He can be reached through his blog.

Originally published by the Foreign Policy Association