`Voice of America' Needed to Reach Arabs and Muslims, American Diplomat Says

October 31st, 2008 6:20 AM

U.S diplomacy has suffered in the Middle East because policymakers dismantled critical instruments of communication in the late 1990s under the mistaken assumption that ideological struggles had ended with the Cold War, a former ambassador to Syria and Israel argues in a new book.

Outlets like the Voice of America (VOA) are critically important to America's strategic interests and policy aims in the Muslim and Arab world where moderate elements are open to persuasion despite previous diplomatic missteps Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian points out in "Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador's Journey Through the Middle East."

To keep pace with media outlets like Al Jazerera, the major Arab satellite TV station, it is imperative to have articulate and fluent Foreign Service officers who can explain and defend U.S. policy in an effective way, Djerejian pointed out in an interview.

Although differing interests and objectives will remain evident in some areas, there is enough common ground that presents diplomats with important opportunities, he suggested.

"The Voice of America" is vitally important as it relates to the struggle for ideas in the Muslim world between moderation and extremism," he said. "The manner and content of the American message is critical. And while 80 percent of the perceptions people have of America throughout the Middle East are shaped by policies, there is another critical 20 percent open for diplomacy to promote widely admired values."

Extensive surveys show that strong majorities in the Muslim world have great admiration for deeply ingrained American principles like individual liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, equality of opportunity and the rule of law, he explained.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not helped itself in Arab-Muslim world by virtue of lending support to dictators, even as it promotes the idea of democracy, Djerejian acknowledges. The experiences of the current Bush Administration also demonstrate that democracy promotion must go beyond elections.

"If democracy promotion is focused too much on elections alone, the principle of unintended consequences comes into play," Djerejian said. "We saw this with the Palestinian election in 2006 where the administration did promote elections and Hamas came out as the winner. This has very real and negative consequences."

Although there is an appetite for democracy and greater political autonomy, it will look very different from what Americans are accustomed to and must be built from the ground up, he argued.

"It is important to understand that Islam is not a monolith, it is a very differentiated society," Djerejian said. "You have Sunnis and Shiites and it's a complex landscape. Understanding the culture is the first key step in any new U.S. administration."

Radical Islamists seek to brand the U.S. as a secular society that denies God and religion but there is ample room to push back against false impressions with a carefully calibrated communications campaign, he explained.

"First you must distinguish between secularism and secularization," Djerejian said. "The U.S. is branded as secular society that excludes God and religion but this totally false. We are a very religious country. What we have is a division between church and state and that's secularization. But freedom of religion is inculcated into our body politic."

Another main topic explored in the book concerns the relationship between reason and Islamic law. At one time Muslim scholars relied upon what is termed "Ijtihad" to reach legal decisions in those instances where Sharia was silent or unclear. This practice was abandoned sometime in the 10th century.

"This gets back to the struggle of ideas now taking placed between moderates and radicals," Djerejian said. "A great majority of Muslims are moderates who believe in rationale interpretation. They believe religious doctrine can be modified to fit the requirements of the contemporary period. Ijtihad is another word for hope."

With regard to Iraq, the ambassador supports a "new diplomatic offensive" that would directly engage neighbors like Syria and Iran. A "strategic dialogue" could yield important dividends in his estimation.

"We should not fear engaging our enemies and our adversaries, unless we are so insecure about our own ability to conduct negotiations," he said. "We could make surprising headway."

In the case Syria, "strategic dialogues" have worked in the past, he recalls. Syria was actually a partner during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and also helped to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Beirut, he pointed out.

There is already a strong reform movement at work in Iran that is putting pressure on the regime, Djerejian said.

Moreover, the real power brokers is the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incendiary president, he explained.

"The Iranian leadership has to be aware and sensitive to the political divisions in their own society," the ambassador said. "There is a huge opportunity here and we can negotiate from a position of strength."