Some years ago I attended a gathering of gurus involved in one way or another examining America’s information program or lack thereof. Our government information ( some would say propaganda) programs have always had little appeal in the Arab world. On the other hand our movies and TV programs have tremendous appeal. Our movies are pirated everywhere. This is especially true since Cairo, the center of Arab movie making, has declined in popularity over the years. Part of this is the lower quality but another more important factor has been the influence of the “Islamic revival.’ Many themes and comedic effects are now subject to public censorship, as well as government controls.
At this meeting the Hollywood representatives on the panels were slapping themselves on the back and excoriating U.S. Government information programs. Their criticism was well founded on the latter, but not on the former. In fact the immense popularity of Hollywood films is one of the main problems in producing a favorable image of America. The gratuitous sex and violence which attracts many Arabs, especially young men, presents malodorous image of this country. It is very difficult to name a single program or movie of recent times, at least those released by the big name corporations, that picture an intact traditional family. An Egyptian officer who came to speak at my class one day, said that until he resided in the US for a few months he did not think Americans had family life. If all you know of this country is what you see in the movies, that is a perfectly understandable attitude. Arabs coming to this country often express their surprise at the religious life in this country. A young Yemeni woman told my class that her mother pleaded with her not to come to the US because she would be murdered. Again understandable.
Of course Hollywood in the past has often been guilty of portraying Arabs and Muslims as simplistic caricatures, wearing long robes and riding camels. This was true in the past but with the coming of Hollywood’s new “social conscience” that is no longer politically correct. In fact now the only safe villains today are Nazis, capitalists, and white evangelicals. But this new “moral” attitude has not diminished the mayhem and explicit sex that sells mediocre movies.
When I mentioned the impact of the seedy portrait of American society at the conference, I was dismissed as some religious freak who had wandered into the wrong conference. The elitists who run the entertainment business are unlikely to be persuaded to forego their immense profits in selling trash to the hoi poloi.
The criticism of the U.S. official information efforts are well taken, however. We try to influence the foreign populations with amateurish happy face films and pictures, I always thought that instead of featuring films about about happy Muslims enjoying life in the America we could influence far more Arabs by showing our military might, economic power, and life of the ordinary Americans of the Middle states, the “deplorables” in modern political discourse. Arabs are a very cynical people, made that way by decades of lies and cartoonish propaganda put out by their governments. They tend to view everything from the government with disdain. Happy face presentations are a waste of time and money.oInfluencing of one person at a time is always the nest method[/caption]
When the old United States Information Agency ( USIA) was in existence it had very little favorable effect on the Arab populations. The one exception were the American libraries run by the consulates. But in this age of every American edifice being a target for bomb throwers, they would need a battalion of guards, and every Arab entering them would be seen as a “Zionist” spy, The USIA people in the field were good folks and often did some good work, but usually it was in obtaining a picture of the local scene and current trends. One good aspect of the USIA officials was the fact that they spent a lot of time with the local journalists and were much better informed on the local issues than the isolated foreign service officials inside their heavily guarded fortress -like Embassies.
One of the things about the old USIA that always dismayed me was the attitude of many of the Washington staff that ostensibly was trying to frame American foreign policies in a favorable light. I would take my Ft Bragg officer classes to the Washington DC USIA center and my students would be subjected to harangues by the staff on the evils of our attitude toward the Palestinian problem. Many of the staffers were Egyptian or Palestinian Americans and I often wondered how they could cast America in a favorable light given their deep antipathy to our “Middle East” policies. Like so many academics and journalists they convoluted the Palestinian issue with the entire Middle East, a basic fallacy chiseled into stone by ‘experts” and politicians every day for decades.
As I have often said and written, the Palestinian issue is near sacred among the Arab politicians and elite but the Palestinians, as people are rarely welcome anywhere among their Arab brothers. A recent best foreign film contender at the 2018 Oscars called “the Insult,” depicts the disdain most Lebanese have for the Palestinians, a feeling prevalent throughout the Arab world. The idea that a “solution” to the Palestinian problem, or a reversal of our “pro-Israeli” posture, would solve American’s distorted image in the Arab/Muslim world is a chimera. Even in the 9/11 report the “experts” made the same claim, i.e., the Islamist terror was a result of our policies toward the Palestinian issue. It is basically a simplistic approach with the added attraction of satisfying the anti Jewish attitude of many intellectuals. As historian Paul Johnson wrote, anti-Semitism is catnip for intellectuals.
In any event the demise of the U.S.I. A, . was no great loss, but putting the remnants of it under the State Department was hardly the answer either. In short at this point we really do not have much in the way of an information/propaganda program oriented toward the Middle East. Perhaps the most important issue we can continue to underline in our programs beamed toward the Middle East is the tyranny and dismal state of their political culture, and promote democratic ideals without assuming that our current politically correct attitudes popular among the elite are necessarily democratic or even good for the intended audience. Denigrating Islam as intrinsically violent, or endlessly blabbering about the “religion of peace,” does not assist the many educated Muslims who are trying to curb the violent aspects of a Salafist version of Islam. The people of the region need to come to the right balance between religion and civil society, and without preaching we need to assist in that endeavor.
As a final note, having watched a bit of the 2018 Oscar presentations I saw the program as a graphic illustration of the Hollywood problem in representing American ideals . They deal in vacuous self-congratulory sloganeering devoid of intellectual or spiritual values.