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Better Communications Efforts Can Significantly Improve America's Image in the Muslim World, Says New Council Special Report

May 18, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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May 18, 2005— Focus groups in three Muslim countries— Egypt, Indonesia, and Morocco— show better communication could change opinions and reduce widespread anti-Americanism, concludes a Council Special Report, A New Beginning: Strategies for a More Fruitful Dialogue with the Muslim World.

Muslim views of the United States as domineering and hostile reflect relentless local reporting on Iraq, Palestine, and purported negative American attitudes toward Muslims, along with ignorance of U.S. aid programs to the region and U.S. support for regional reform. According to authors Craig Charney and Nicole Yakatan of Charney Research, change will require "listening more, a humbler tone, and focusing on bilateral aid and partnership, while tolerating disagreement on controversial policy issues," as well as substantial funding and effort.

The report points out that in all three countries, images of the United States are dominated by resentment of American power and anger directed at President George W. Bush— negative attitudes that spill over to American brands and people. "Perceptions matter: most Muslims do not hate America for 'who we are' or 'what we do', but for what they perceive we do."

Reports on television networks largely hostile to the United States are Muslims' main source of information; U.S. government-sponsored media (Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa) have little impact in the region. The effects of unfavorable media coverage are reinforced by stereotypes about the U.S. decision-making process, particularly about alleged Jewish influence on U.S. foreign policy.

However, the report finds, America currently has a window of opportunity to change Muslim attitudes. Positive impressions about tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, Iraq's recent election, and new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are providing the second Bush administration a chance for a fresh start.

Rather than trying— and failing— to persuade Muslims to support American policies in Iraq or Palestine, the report says that the United States should publicize its significant development aid to their lands, which, despite soaring aid budgets, is almost invisible to them. When focus group members learned of U.S. aid efforts— via media reports on tsunami relief in Indonesia or support for women's rights in Morocco— it significantly improved their attitudes toward the United States. "It makes a real difference to Muslims' views of America when they learn of U.S. aid in areas that matter to them," the report finds.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • Focus on partnerships in support of local Muslim initiatives, without presenting the United States as the motor of change.
  • Agree to disagree on contentious issues involving other countries, such as Iraq or Israel and Palestine.
  • Engage local and regional media via press releases, interviews, Op-Eds, press conferences, and site visits.
  • Launch an advertising campaign on U.S. aid and support for reform in local and regional media, and acknowledge the U.S. government as the source.
  • Improve coverage of aid programs, particularly those concerning economic, education, and health aid, in U.S. government media.
  • Tap credible spokespeople who speak local languages, such as aid recipients, exchange program participants, local executives of U.S firms, and Americans from relevant diasporas.
  • Challenge stereotypes on U.S. foreign policy and alleged Jewish influence through non-governmental efforts, such as academic dialogues, videoconferences, and documentaries.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in America and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States other governments.