Center for Strategic Communication

by Jeffry R. Halverson

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote an opinion piece in the British daily The Guardian, stating:

[Bin Laden] has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by American foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of ‘full-spectrum dominance,’ its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts.

In case you were wondering, Roy is neither an Islamist nor even a Muslim; she’s the daughter of a Christian and a Hindu. I cite Roy’s words because I think it illustrates a widespread international attitude toward American foreign policy, or what some have described as American “imperialism” and “militarism.” Wherever you stand on this issue, I want you to focus on one important question: At what point do actions speak louder than words? It’s a vital question. So far the American government is failing to support its words with appropriate actions. America’s ideals and principles are not being communicated by its actions.

The speech that President Obama gave in Cairo at the beginning of his term was generally met with enthusiasm and approval in Muslim societies, albeit with some caution and reserve. Justifying that reserve, I dare say that the government’s actions have yet to live up to the President’s words. Meanwhile, the public discourse in the United States has taken a decidedly hostile turn against Muslims, hardly the “new beginning” Obama spoke about.

From Congress all the way to Main Street, the majority of Americans, if polls about the Cordoba House project are indicative, appear to equate the nineteen 9/11 hijackers (15 Saudis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Lebanese, 2 from the UAE) with all Muslims, including American Muslims, despite the fact that there is no evidence Americans were involved in the attack. “They” are all one and the same.

For instance, a popular Facebook group opposing the Cordoba House project in New York City has over 115,000 online supporters and states:

Planting a mosque just two blocks from where Muslims murdered Americans on 9/11 in the name of Islam is a huge slap in the face. . . They claim a right to be insulted by cartoons mocking their prophet, even to the point of beheading people. [Emphasis added]

Apparently there is no distinction between American Muslims, including those who have lived in NYC long before the 9/11 attacks, and the 19 foreign nationals (most of them Saudis) who killed some 3,000 Americans, including many Muslim Americans. Opposition to mosques is not limited to the two-block radius around Ground Zero either. It is being documented around the country. Detractors are no longer citing traffic concerns either, they openly claim that mosques will bring terrorists into their neighborhoods.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was a conscious effort on the part of the Bush administration and many other groups to try to allay anti-Muslim sentiment in our country and prevent the outbreak of widespread violence against American Muslims. Furthermore, despite persistent urban myths to the contrary, there was widespread condemnation of the attacks throughout the Muslim world.

In the years since that time, in which violence against American Muslims did nevertheless occur, the efforts by the Bush administration and others to promote coexistence have become the subject of ridicule as dishonest “political correctness” and “pandering” to extremists. President Bush’s televised statement that “Islam means peace” has since become a derisive joke. This is even evident in President Obama’s own obvious discomfort with Muslims, rooted in his need to distance himself from anything that may feed the persistent conspiracy theories that Obama himself is some sort of “covert Muslim,” or even an Islamist.

For example, after a statement of support for Mayor Bloomberg’s position on the Cordoba House project, Obama–who is still in his first term–qualified his remarks, stating that:

I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

The Cordoba House case, along with many incidents at home and abroad, communicates a clear message: A substantial number of Americans, even a majority, think, or privately suspect, that we are at war with Islam as a whole. This idea is furthermore guiding actions and informing public discourse. In such a climate, all the bags of wheat with the red, white, and blue logos on them, all the smiling soldiers playing soccer and handing out candy, all the official Ramadan greetings and public speeches relating holiday words of kindness, do nothing so long as our actions provide ample fodder for Osama bin Laden and other extremists who are telling Muslim societies that we are at war with them, with “Islam,” the religion of over 1 billion people.

There are plenty of non-Muslim Americans, including government officials, who agree with Bin Laden too, and they write best-selling books, give speeches, fund organizations, and elect candidates to communicate Bin Laden’s message for him, of America versus Islam. In fact, I would say that those who advocate the fantasy of a holy “clash of civilizations” are far more inclined to action than those who disagree with it. Far more.

So what do these actions communicate? When an audience cannot understand English, they can still understand a bullet, a bomb, or, yes, a reconstruction project. When Afghan civilians are killed by an American drone firing missiles into the mountains near Peshawar, no amount of apologies, translated or not, will atone for it. No bags of wheat, medical treatment, school books, or new wells, will make up for the loss of a family member or a child (if indeed they get any of those things). America will be seen in the unflattering terms expressed above by Ms. Roy. Of course, the extremists have killed countless civilians. In fact, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have killed far more Muslims than they have “infidel” Americans. Far more.  So what are the extremists saying or doing that America is not?

America is a foreign power; a superpower, in fact, with over 700 military bases around the world. The Taliban may be brutal, oppressive, tyrants, and thugs, but they are Afghans. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may be vicious, but they are North Africans (Arabs and Berbers). A narrative of freedom from occupation is a very easy message for extremists to communicate, a story long understood in many regions of the Muslim world. We must be far more attentive to what our actions are communicating in such contexts.

It is wise and informed actions that go farthest in neutralizing the shamefully effective actions by extremists to cast America into “crusader” narratives. The invasion of Iraq was an absolute gift to them, in more ways than one. The ongoing financial and political support of authoritarian regimes is another. Words about freedom and democracy mean nothing to people in the Middle East when our actions and tax dollars support the Saudi monarchy and the Mubarak regime. How can so many Americans be up-in-arms about the American Muslim Cordoba House project, when they buy products and stock from companies (such as Apple and Priceline) that are part-owned by members of the Wahhabist Saudi monarchy?

Yes, actions do speak louder than words. The act of building the Cordoba House has created irrational outrage before construction has even begun, despite statements and speeches attempting to allay the hostility over the project. The act of America’s physical military presence in numerous Muslim societies also speaks louder than a thousand statements about noble ideals of freedom and democracy for those societies, especially when America fails to live up to those ideals by backing oppressive authoritarian regimes.

In terms of a communication strategy, there’s obviously serious work to be done — not just talked about — as the status quo goes on. Our current actions clearly aren’t communicating the right message, and our well-intended words are being undermined by our actions.

Editor’s Update — August 23

Since Jeff posted this, there has been news of growing concern about the public diplomacy and strategic communication implications of this controversy.  Two articles, in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, cite counterterrorism officials saying that the controversy is being exploited by extremists.  The latter article is especially interesting because WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation, which liberal commentators like Frank Rich accuse of stoking the controversy.