"Hearts and Minds in the Middle East"

Richard Fairbanks
Key Largo, FL
June 15, 2005

Osama bin Laden and his followers declared jihad against the West well before the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and before the first plane struck the World Trade Center. The first "soft power" hints of the war first appeared on popular Arab satellite networks and websites where jihadists vowed to destroy the American way of life, one seen to interfere with their ultimate goal: establishing an Islamic caliphate to rule over the Muslim world.

The jihadists see the U.S. presence and policies in the Arab world, including those supporting the spread of democracy and human rights, as an abomination that can be countered only by force.

Over the last decade, sedate, controlled, and state-sponsored media have been replaced by satellite TV and the world wide web. These new media, which provide a de facto means of breaching traditional government controls, provide pan-Arab vehicles that jihadists exploit to appeal to their would-be followers — millions of disenchanted, unemployed or underemployed young Arabs under thirty — which constitute 70 percent of the population of the Arab world. More than three and a half years after the September 11 attacks and the start of the War on Terror, the United States still chases after terrorists, denying them the refuge they have enjoyed in such regions as formerly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In the battle of ideas, the US is deploying the very same tools first used by the jihadists: soft power.

The U.S. government annually spends nearly $800 million on public diplomacy initiatives to counter misinformation and anti-Americanism on the airwaves. Radio Sawa and the Al-Hurra news and entertainment satellite television network represent two distinct attempts by the American government to reach the Arab audience. Al-Hurra, Arabic for "the free one," was launched in mid-February 2004. Established in March 2002, Radio Sawa, Arabic for "together," which provides mostly entertainment programming interspersed with short news briefs, has captured impressive audience figures. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. entity in charge of all international non-military broadcasts, runs both of these efforts. The State Department also launched Hi magazine in July 2003, an Arabic lifestyle and fashion monthly that steers clear of political issues.

Despite these and other ambitious — read costly — initiatives, recent events indicate that Arab perceptions of America have not improved, but instead, have taken a marked turn for the worse. The recent Newsweek article alleging that American soldiers at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Koran sparked widespread protests throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, even after Newsweek retracted the story because of its dubious provenance. Such an episode serves to remind us of the continuing very deep animosity toward the United States. It goes without saying that such acrimony, especially if it expands and wins new converts among the greater Arab public, is a clear and present danger to U.S. interests not only in a critical region, but also in our homeland.

In its 2004 report, the September 11th Commission pressed for an overhaul of public diplomacy efforts. As the Commission's co-chairman Thomas Kean stressed in August 2004, "as much as we worry about [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaeda, [] we should worry far more about the attitudes of tens of millions of young Arabs and hundreds of millions of young Muslims." Kean also recognized that U.S. public diplomacy has a vital role to play in how this audience and others perceive America.

ACNielsen surveys conducted in July and August 2004 in 7 Middle East countries found initial support for Al-Hurra. Viewers aged 15 and over spent between 12 and 33 percent of their viewing time watching the channel, with Egypt-based viewers watching it the least and Kuwait-based viewers watching it the most. Out of the 7 countries surveyed, an average of 71 percent of overall viewers ranked Al-Hurra's news as either "very reliable" or "somewhat reliable." While 81 percent of UAE-based viewers trusted Al-Hurra as a news source, only 53 percent of Jordan-viewers said they found the channel to be reliable. However, the opinion of the mythical "Arab street" has indicated otherwise, often dismissing the channel as mere American propaganda despite Al-Hurra representatives' claims otherwise.

Other surveys indicate that U.S. public diplomacy efforts such as Al-Hurra lag far behind their local competitors. Launched in November 1996, the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel is an unavoidable top competitor. In a May 2004 survey conducted by Zogby International and the University of Maryland in which 6 nations were surveyed (Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE), an overwhelming majority of viewers indicated Al-Jazeera as their most-watched satellite channel for international news. 66 percent of viewers in Egypt and 62 percent in Jordan used Al-Jazeera as their primary station in contrast to lower figures in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, with 44 percent each. While certain regional news channels, such as the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), Abu Dhabi TV and 2M did have considerable viewership, viewers most often put Al-Arabiya in second place as a news source. The Saudi-backed Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) launched Al-Arabiya in early 2003 in order to provide an alternative to a "controversial" Al-Jazeera.

This crucial task of providing a different view of our country and its people is too important to be left only to government. In order to reach the over 200 million-strong audience in 22 Arab countries, public diplomacy initiatives must be available on the indigenous media that the people of the region regularly watch.

Sister Cities camera assistant with the mayor of Chicago
Photo courtesy Layalina TV

To tap into the dynamism and creativity of the U.S. television industry's private sector, I initiated Layalina Productions, Inc. in March 2002. A 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation based in Washington, DC, Layalina develops and produces documentaries, debates, entertainment, and children's programming for broadcast in the vernacular on Arab-owned satellite and cable television networks throughout the Arab world. We have been fortunate to secure the involvement of a team of producers, writers and directors spanning Hollywood and the Arab Middle East. Layalina's key mission is to produce programs that foster cross-cultural understanding and encourage critical thinking. Such understanding can contribute to enhancing the image of America in the Arab world, and consequently relations between Americans and Arabs. The September 11 attacks, the war in Iraq, and the increasing level of distrust and anger emanating from the Middle East and North Africa inspired me to launch this public diplomacy initiative.

Ali, Mohammed, and Imad on the road in America
Photo courtesy Layalina TV

Although the Bush administration has established a few major media initiatives and is clearly focused on a variety of policies to reshape the Middle East, their battle to win "hearts and minds" has thus far not been a smashing success. The contribution of non-governmental actors, particularly non-profits, in public diplomacy initiatives can help ameliorate Arab skepticism toward the U.S. The interpersonal, apolitical, and non-profit character of Layalina and its credibility and production values makes it particularly attractive for Arab broadcasting networks and individuals. Layalina's projects and objectives are also, of course,

Dick Fairbanks in Seattle
quite attractive to our private sector as American citizens and companies living in and doing business in the Arab world can only benefit from improved relations between the United States and the Arab world.

We have completed three pilot programs, have three more in production, and are in the final stages of marketing them to leading Arabic TV outlets. For a 5-minute introduction to Layalina, including presentations by yours truly and our Honorary Chairman, former President G.H.W. Bush, visit www.layalina.tv.