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A Mangled Message to the Muslim World

Interviewee: Joseph S. Nye, Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Interviewer: Greg Bruno
September 13, 2010

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Anger over a Florida pastor's call to burn the Quran turned violent last week (VOA) as Muslims from Afghanistan to Indonesia took to the streets to condemn the planned desecration. Separate burnings in New York and Tennessee on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks set off a wave of demonstrations in Afghan cities, prompting concern (Daily Mail) for the safety of U.S. and coalition forces. Joseph S. Nye Jr., an expert on the projection of U.S. soft power abroad, says these incidents will make it increasingly hard for the United States to succeed in the Afghan war effort, and complicate relations with the Muslim world. "From the point of view of an ordinary Afghan citizen who doesn't know much about the United States, the fact that Terry Jones heads a tiny church regarded as extreme doesn't register, and basically they attribute much more significance to his views than is justified," he says. "When you have an event like Abu Ghraib, which becomes widely disseminated throughout the Muslim world, or you have something like a threatened burning of the Quran, it makes it much harder to win those hearts and minds."

Thousands of people in Afghanistan protested the proposed burning of a Quran by a Florida pastor. How damaging is this controversy to the United States' goals in Afghanistan?

It is very damaging, as General [David H.] Petraeus [the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan] and others have said. From the point of view of an ordinary Afghan citizen who doesn't know much about the United States, the fact that Terry Jones heads a tiny church regarded as extreme doesn't register, and basically they attribute much more significance to his views than is justified. But most of the world doesn't know the details of American society and politics, and they just focus on the offense that's given by the burning of the Quran. That has serious consequences for us.

General Petraeus warned that if this burning were to proceed, it would fuel hatred against Americans (MSNBC) on par with the photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib. That's a troubling comparison, isn't it?

He's right. The strategy of counterinsurgency rests on a combination of hard and soft power. You use your hard military power not to see how many people you can destroy, but to provide enough security that you can then use your soft power to win the hearts and minds of the civilian populace.

When you have an event like Abu Ghraib, which becomes widely disseminated throughout the Muslim world, or you have something like a threatened burning of the Quran, it makes it much harder to win those hearts and minds. That's why I think Petraeus is correct--that if you have a strategy, which rests on a combination of hard and soft power, when you have an extraneous event like this, which destroys your soft power, you're not going to succeed.

Some might suggest those defined as Islamic radicals have already made up their minds about fomenting anti-American views.

The radicals already have their minds made up, but the question is: What about the minds of those in the middle? Are they then recruitable by the radicals? Events like this enhance the recruitment capacities of the radicals.

You've served as an assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. From a security perspective, how do incidents like these impact operational security for soldiers?

You measure [success] by the numbers of areas that are won over to security. That means that the soldier's task is going to be a lot harder if, when he is deployed into a particular area, the citizens are already outraged against the United States.

The radicals already have their minds made up, but the question is what about the minds of those in the middle? Are they then recruitable by the radicals? Events like this enhance the recruitment capacities of the radicals.

It's not just al-Qaeda and the Taliban seeking to exploit the controversy. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called it a "Zionist plot" (Press TV). Clearly there are others who benefit from a tarnished American image in the eyes of Muslims around the world, right?

It's important to be aware of the vulnerabilities we have. There is always a certain level of ignorance in other countries, and in public opinion. Some polls show a considerable percentage of the population in Middle Eastern counties who thought that 9/11 was staged by the CIA. So there are people who can be recruited, and who don't have a very high level of information, and are susceptible. In that sense, inflammatory, emotional events can suddenly turn into much larger issues than they might appear. Witness the example of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that were published in Denmark, and the effects that had on Danish exports and threats to the Danes.

What does the incident portend for our prospects of waging a successful counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan?

I'm skeptical about a long run counterinsurgency success in Afghanistan if that means that we're going to be able to defeat the Taliban and create a democratic regime in Afghanistan. But after all, both Petraeus and President [President Barack Obama] have said that their aim is not to find a military but a political solution. We're in a situation where we try to use enough counterinsurgency now to effect the bargaining so that we're not stuck there trying to make a long-term counterinsurgency work.

The United States has spent millions of dollars in reconstruction money in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to win hearts and minds by building schools, hospitals, and those types of things. Yet Afghans aren't saying, "Wait, the Americans built me my school." They're saying, "Look at this guy in Florida."

There are larger problems than just the guy in Florida. Some Afghans resent the fact that the school was built in the wrong area. Others resent the corruption that goes along with the building of the school. Others resent the Karzai government and question its legitimacy. So there are many problems of applying COIN in Afghanistan that existed well before Terry Jones decided to seek publicity for his distorted views.

During a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the United States to become more of a global leader. Do episodes like the one in Florida and the controversy over the mosque in New York weaken America's ability to be seen as a global arbiter of good?

They could, if that was all that we presented. But Secretary Clinton is exactly right that we have to present ourselves as the organizer of networks and coalitions and alliances. I have a book coming out in February called "The Future of Power," and the argument there is that we need a strategy for the United States along the line of what Clinton was talking about in her speech, which is to see ourselves not as a dominant hegemon, which is to control violence inside Afghanistan or Iraq, but as an organizer of alliances and networks, which is absolutely essential if you are going to have any stability in governance.

Our own civil society has to try to come to terms with the fact there are some people within our body politic who have very extreme views.

To which episodes like the plan to burn the Quran become the dominant narrative about the United States, then it does weaken us. But that's why it's important to have other things going on, other roles that the government deploys, such as Clinton has described so that the Terry Jones-type of episode doesn't get blown too far out of proportion.

Nine years after 9/11 the United States is still having emotional conversations about Islam, and Muslims in America. These debates are painful, but are they also cathartic?

I think that's correct; the condemnation that's arisen over the terror of Terry Jones' plan of burning the Quran is healthy in the sense that it makes us realize that our larger values are based on the First Amendment, which includes both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but also on a degree of tolerance. I was intrigued that [Evangelist] Franklin Graham, for example, had condemned the Quran burning on the grounds that burning somebody else's sacred text, even if you don't agree with it, is not an action that we should be applauding. So in that sense, the degree to which we get affirmations of what our basic and deepest values are in an event like this can perhaps have a cleansing effect.

It's a very subtle message to relay to the rest of the world, though, isn't it?

It's much more subtle than the imagery of flames surrounding a sacred text. And often pictures are more effective than words. In a world where every cell phone is a camera, and every computer is a photo shop, it means that the mainstream media no longer have control of this, and our own civil society has to try to come to terms with the fact there are some people within our body politic who have very extreme views.

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